What’s Airbus To Do About The 787’s New Battery?

At last, at last! Friday’s (April 19, 2013) approval by the FAA of design changes to the 787 battery system have sent dreams flying high again at Boeing, more than three months after an airworthiness directive grounded them along with its revolutionary flagship.

Following the implementation of what Boeing describes as a “comprehensive and permanent solution”, 787s will be cleared to resume service in the US, and other national regulators are likely to follow suit. To the relief of its airline customers, Boeing has dispatched teams worldwide to fix grounded 787s, while new aircraft are being modified during final assembly and all planned 2013 deliveries are expected by the end of the year.

Speaking on Friday, Ray Conner, president and CEO at Boeing Commercial Airplanes, emphasised the immense effort Boeing has poured into developing a solution - over 100,000 manhours. He said that, through “skill and dedication”, Boeing and its partners have not only achieved that objective but “made a great airplane even better”.

So let’s talk about Airbus.

For if the solution to the 787’s battery problems is indeed comprehensive, permanent and an all-round improvement, it leaves Airbus in an interesting position. As noted in a previous Talking Point, Airbus was quick off the mark to revert to tried and trusted nickel-cadmium (Ni-Cd) batteries for the upcoming A350 XWB as soon as it became clear that there were problems with the 787’s lithium-ion (Li-ion) equivalent.

Airbus announced this “Plan B” in mid-February, while making polite noises about the Li-ion system it had been developing with Saft for the A350 – which the airframer said was “robust and safe” – and promising further studies into Li-ion.

Last month, Airbus finished installing the engines and APUs on an A350 which will be used for the maiden flight this summer and thus seems to be on track for the high level of programme certainty it was aiming for by the quick switch to Plan B. Does this mean it is too late for a U-turn on battery technology?

But would it even be desirable to follow Boeing’s lead? At the time the A350 “Plan B” was announced, Airbus said the root causes of the 787’s battery problems were “unexplained” and that it would “take on board” the findings of the official investigation. Have they really been explained now, at a technical level, or could a cynic substitute the word “comprehensive” with “generic” in describing the much-heralded fix?

With the two key airframers currently diverging on battery technology for their all-important next-generation aircraft, it will be interesting to watch what Airbus does next.

Right now all the talk is about the 787 – but what about the A350?

TAGS: Components
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