Monday, January 21, 2013

Dreamliner Probes Intensify: Twin Investigations of Jet's Batteries Show Signs of Diverging

Updated January 21, 2013, 7:29 p.m. ET


The Wall Street Journal

International investigations into the battery malfunctions that grounded Boeing Co.'s 787 jet are accelerating, with U.S. and Japanese experts pursuing some new and possibly differing leads.

One facet of the effort led by experts from Tokyo appears to concentrate heavily on potential problems with the batteries themselves, while their counterparts in the U.S. seem more centered on possible hazards stemming from the manner in which the batteries interact with the plane's novel electric grid.

With the separate and loosely coordinated probes continuing to expand, further questions are cropping up about the extent of sharing of preliminary data, according to people familiar with the matter. U.S. investigators, for instance, are pushing for more access to some of the raw data retrieved by Japanese officials, according to people familiar with the details. Meanwhile, pressure from Boeing and its airline customers is building on both sides of the Pacific to find answers quickly.

Japanese regulators intensified their focus on manufacturing and quality-control issues at the GS Yuasa Corp. plant that builds lithium-ion batteries that are a major feature of Boeing's cutting-edge plane. Officials from Japan's transport ministry and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration on Monday visited the headquarters of GS Yuasa, and a transport-ministry official said the investigators are also scheduled this week to inspect the GS Yuasa factory where the Dreamliner batteries are made.

Leading up to that step, Japanese investigators suggested they were concentrating on potential overcharging as the likely cause of the battery problem that led to the Jan. 16 emergency landing and evacuation of an All Nippon Airways Co. 787 after pilots noticed a burning smell.

Meanwhile, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board on Sunday added a twist to the high-profile probes. It disclosed that in a previous incident—when a rechargeable lithium-ion battery caught fire on a Japan Airlines Co. 787 jet parked in Boston a week earlier—the battery "did not exceed its designed voltage." Instead of discussing potential overcharging, the safety board emphasized its efforts to delve into wiring, circuit boards and other battery-related external components.

The safety board's update suggests that some of its experts, along with others from the FAA, apparently suspect different circumstances than those highlighted so far by Japanese officials might have preceded the two incidents. The NTSB's latest release also provides the strongest hint yet that at least to some extent, the U.S. and Japanese investigations might be pursuing different theories.

If that is the case—and particularly if the two incidents turn out to have different root causes—the result could potentially delay Boeing's effort to persuade regulators to allow the planes back into service.

Japanese officials are participating in the team headed up by the U.S. safety board, just as FAA and safety-board experts are part of the Japanese-led investigative team. But the twin probes are at different stages, and U.S. officials, for their part, privately have talked about the importance of broader data-sharing.

Outside safety experts agree that it is too early to draw definitive conclusions, and they add that additional data could swiftly eliminate differences in emphasis between the two probes. FAA and safety-board spokeswomen have declined to elaborate on the status of the investigations. Japanese officials said the probe of GS Yuasa would take "a few days."

"We will inspect whether appropriate operations have been conducted—from design to manufacturing," Shigeru Takano, director of the ministry's air-transport-safety unit, said at a news conference after Monday's visit to the company's Kyoto headquarters.

GS Yuasa is a century-old Japanese company with a strong presence in the automotive industry, but until now it was relatively unknown in the aviation world. The company traces its roots back to the maker of Japan's first lead-acid storage battery in 1895. That company, Japan Storage Battery, merged with domestic rival Yuasa Corp. in 2004, forming what is now the third-biggest maker of lead batteries for cars, with about an 8% share globally.

In the 1990s, the company started developing lithium-ion batteries, the high-capacity but flammable type of storage cell used in the Dreamliner. It has plowed the bulk of its recent capital investments into the lithium part of its business. According to the company, GS Yuasa plans to spend ¥50 billion ($556 million) in the lithium-ion business during the three years ending in March. The company makes lithium-ion batteries for satellites and deep-sea vessels, and in November landed a subcontract with the Rocketdyne rocket-engine manufacturing unit of United Technologies Corp. to supply the batteries for the International Space Station. It has joint ventures with Honda Motor Co. and Mitsubishi Motors Corp. of Japan to produce lithium-ion batteries for electric cars, andGS Yausa said it had no previous record of fires caused by its lithium-ion batteries. It declined to comment on the current investigation.

Shortly after U.S. and Japanese investigators left the Yuasa's corporate compound Monday, workers in blue and green overalls streamed out of the company's front gate, located on a residential street outside central Kyoto.

Boeing has said it is working closely with investigators to identify a corrective plan that would allow Dreamliner flights to resume.

In sketching out future moves, the NTSB underscored the nature of its inquiry. The safety board said a team of investigators, including industry experts, are conducting examinations of the internal structure of the battery in the JAL incident in Boston, which occurred Jan. 7. Scans of the battery, and disassembly of a number of cells, appear intended to help investigators determine whether some type of internal fault or manufacturing defect prompted the battery to overheat and start the fire.

Safety-board engineers and scientists also are looking at external factors. The NTSB's statement said that a group of safety experts will meet Tuesday in Arizona "to test and examine the battery charger," which is manufactured there by Securaplane Technologies Inc., a unit of Meggitt MGGT. PLC of Britain.

The safety board took the unusual step of releasing its Sunday update just after midnight on the East Coast, during a three-day weekend in the U.S., including a federal holiday. The world-wide grounding of Boeing 787s is now stretching into its seventh day.

When the FAA last Wednesday ordered the 787 fleet in the U.S. grounded, the emergency directive effectively put a halt to all deliveries of new Dreamliners because Boeing is prohibited from conducting test flights of yet-to-be-delivered 787s.

Boeing formally announced a moratorium on Dreamliner deliveries Friday.

—Jon Ostrower
and Daniel Michaels
contributed to this article.

Corrections & Amplifications

The maker of the Dreamliner's batteries is GS Yuasa. An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of the company in several instances.

The update said that certain parts removed from the JAL 787 have been sent to Boeing for analysis and download of data at the company's facilities, a step that could assist the Chicago-based plane maker in developing potential interim safeguards needed to return the fleet to service. Previously, Boeing officials expressed frustration that some data gathered by government investigators hadn't yet been provided to the company, according to people familiar with the situation.


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