Airbus airs possibility of dropping A350 battery
By Tim Hepher and Ben Berkowitz, ReutersPARIS/NEW YORK -- Europe's Airbus is considering whether to drop lithium-ion batteries and switch back to traditional ones on its A350 passenger jet as investigators probe Boeing 787 safety incidents, several people familiar with the matter said.
February 10, 2013, 12:32 am TWN
The move comes amid a wider rethink in the aerospace industry on whether the powerful but delicate backup energy systems are technically “mature,” or predictable, they said.
Industry executives, insurers and safety officials told Reuters the technology's predictability was being questioned at senior levels as investigators struggle to find the cause of incidents that led to the grounding of Boeing's 787 Dreamliner.
“There is an increasing doubt over the technology,” said a person familiar with industry-wide discussions on the issue. “It may well be the future but for now it is a question of maturity. The information on the two incidents is not reassuring.”
The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which is examining a fire on a 787 at Boston airport a month ago, said on Thursday it had identified where the fire broke out but not the cause. A similar investigation is under way in Japan.
A spokesman for EADS unit Airbus said it would study the outcome of the U.S. probe: “Let's not get ahead of ourselves. There are no conclusions by the NTSB yet and the investigation is still ongoing.” All options are open, he added.
France's Saft, which makes both the new and old batteries for Airbus, did not respond to requests for comment. Last month it insisted lithium-ion was safe.
The A350 would be the second large passenger jet to fly on lithium-ion batteries for backup electrical power after the Dreamliner, which pioneered their use in passenger transport to support an increasing array of electrical systems.
Airbus said last week it had a plan B for its battery and time to respond to any rule changes.
However, industry sources said that following the NTSB's latest comments, the odds are shortening that Airbus will switch to nickel-cadmium technology used on jets like the A380.
“It is a classic risk-management problem. If you don't know the cause of something you can't quantify the risk that it will happen again,” an international safety official told Reuters.
“In that case, you have little choice but to take a temporary step back and rely on something better understood.”
Experts say that if the 787 probe fails to provide clear answers soon, pressure may build for Airbus to pre-empt the findings and switch solutions to head off development risk.
Airbus plans an A350 maiden flight in midyear, followed by a year of flight trials and certification, during which the distraction of re-engineering could increase the risk of delays.
The A350 is due to be delivered in the second half of 2014, around two years behind its original schedule.
Reverting to nickel-cadmium would mean sacrificing the lighter weight of lithium-ion, equivalent on the A350 to one adult male passenger out of between 270 and 350 passengers.
“The penalty in weight compared with the risks associated with 'li-ion' is minimal,” said Nick Cunningham, an aerospace analyst at Agency Partners in London.