My Kingdom for a Horse

NTSB photos of the burned auxiliary power unit battery from a JAL Boeing 787 that caught fire on Jan. 7 at Boston's Logan International Airport. The dimensions of the battery are 19x13.2x10.2 inches and it weighs approximately 63 pounds (new).
NTSB photo of the burned auxiliary power unit battery from a JAL Boeing 787 that caught fire on Jan. 7 at Boston’s Logan International Airport. The dimensions of the battery are 19×13.2×10.2 inches and it weighs approximately 63 pounds (new).

“For want of a nail, the shoe was lost. For want of a shoe, the horse was lost. For want of a horse, the battle was lost….”

Each year, as Business Facilities begins its assessments for our annual State and Metro Rankings Report, we usually have a good idea of where the general trends will lead us.

For example, we can predict with confidence that our state Automotive Manufacturing Strength ranking will continue to reflect the ongoing battle for supremacy between long-time Rust Belt powerhouses like Michigan, Ohio and Indiana and rapidly growing automotive clusters in Southern and Border states, including Tennessee, Kentucky, Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama.

Until a few days ago, it also looked like a good bet that the dust had finally settled after recent seismic shifts in the U.S. Aerospace Manufacturing sector. We figured incoming production metrics would give us an accurate fix on whether the traditionally dominant aero hubs in Metro Seattle and Wichita are in the process of being usurped by rising contenders in Charleston, SC and Mobile, AL.

North Charleston is where Boeing’s new 787 jetliner is being assembled (the Boeing project was our 2009 Economic Development Deal of the Year Gold Award winner) and Mobile is gearing up to become Airbus’ primary North American manufacturing hub (garnering an Honorable Mention Award in our 2012 Deal of the Year sweepstakes).

Well, it looks like all bets are off—and we may have to go back to the drawing board to re-configure our aero manufacturing standings so they reflect the impact of an unexpected crisis at Boeing.

For nearly a decade, the airline industry eagerly awaited the arrival of Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner. The sleek new commercial jet offers unprecedented fuel efficiency thanks to a light-weight but ultra-strong carbon-fiber composite skin and an advanced electrical system powered by a huge lithium-ion battery. Boeing has produced 50 787s to date, has back orders for more than 800 and expects thousands more to be purchased over the next 20 years.

But now, Boeing’s new flagship has been grounded indefinitely worldwide as air safety officials and engineers anxiously try to determine what is causing the 787’s lithium battery to catch fire.

One look at photos the National Transportation Safety Board took of the battery container from a Jan. 7 fire aboard a Japan Airlines plane is all anyone needs to see to understand the gravity of this defect. The blue battery box is covered with black smudges and filled with blackened wiring and charred battery components. Lithium is a volatile material which can quickly progress to meltdown after the first signs of overheating.

Thus far, Boeing says it plans to keep building 787s in Charleston while engineers determine whether the batteries and the plane’s sophisticated electrical system have to be replaced or rebuilt. Apparently, it’s more cost-effective to keep the current aircraft build going and swap out components later than to shut it down and retool up front. Boeing currently builds five 787s per month. It hasn’t delivered any since Jan. 3.

To make matters worse, 787s also have experienced a bevy of lesser ills, including fuel and oil leaks, a cracked cockpit window and a computer glitch that erroneously indicated a brake problem. The glitches unfolded at the worst possible time, in terms of public perception: just as a number of airlines were undertaking a series of high-profile launches of 787 service.

LOT Polish Airlines absorbed the embarrassment this week, just as it was showing off its new 787 service between Warsaw and Chicago. The plane’s captain learned of the FAA grounding order while making the inaugural flight from Warsaw to Chicago. The airline canceled the return trip—and a ceremony at O’Hare Airport that was to include airline officials and Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Passengers queuing up to take the airline’s first flight back to Warsaw had to scramble to find an available hotel room instead. The airline said Thursday that it may seek compensation from Boeing for the grounding of its two 787s.

All Nippon Airways said its 18th 787 is due at the end of this month, but it won’t take delivery until 787 flights resume.

The 787 was tested extensively both before and after its first test flight in 2009. The FAA said its technical experts logged 200,000 hours testing and reviewing the plane’s design before it was certified in August 2011. Six test planes ran up 4,645 flight hours, about a quarter of which were flown by FAA flight test crews, the agency said.

New 787s sell for more than $200 million. Airline customers get warranties and in some cases a promise from Boeing to cover costs if the plane is grounded. Aircraft industry analysts say the cost of fixing the 787’s electrical problems could top $600 million.

We’ll keep you posted on the latest developments, but don’t be surprised if you turn to our Aerospace Manufacturing ranking this summer and find it marked “incomplete.”