Like Mold in an Onion…

Sometimes when you peel away the layers of an onion, you find a problem deep inside. What have we observed, as we peel away the layers of the Boeing 787 battery fire issue, and get to the facts?

Well, at first we heard the stories on the news: whispers of ‘maybe’ a problem, and pictures of big new airplanes boldly identified with ‘787’ paintjobs. [marketing success #1]

Then, we saw Huerta and LaHood heeling behind the podium, doing their part in what might feel like a confidence game. [marketing success #2]

Then, we experienced the rapid progression of news showing smoke, an emergency landing, a Japanese grounding, an FAA about-face grounding (which rendered those recent FAA podium appearances a bit hollow and ‘salesy’). [marketing efforts are starting to derail]

Then, NTSB clarified matters by sharing the burnt battery photo and making it clear: fires should not happen on airplanes, especially commercial airliners. [scrap marketing efforts; commence damage control mode]

Things muddled along and the news buzz began to fade. Then, we saw a pulse of news articles stating Japanese aviation authorities relaxed rules in 2008. To some, this looked like step one in trying to pin a problem on a peripheral player. The subtext was, gee, maybe this would not have happened if the Japanese authorities had been as diligent as FAA authorities. [step one in the coverup]

And now, as of yesterday, we learned that All Nippon had experienced many other battery problems and Boeing was aware of these issues. That, it appears, details of this safety/trouble history may not have been shared with NTSB and other safety officials as early as they should have been, during the past two weeks. Add to that whispers that FAA had relaxed 787 rules a year BEFORE the Japanese authorities.

All in all, it is beginning to unpeel the way the Lance Armstrong doping case unpeeled; very slowly, and in a way that makes the initial issue of far lesser import than the subsequent (and evidently intentional?) coverup.


For the record, this writer was a Boeing kid. I grew up in Seattle, and I still recall the thrill in the mid-1960’s, as a seven-year-old lining up with all the other kids at the Seattle Center Christmas event to be handed a huge plastic candy-cane filled with candy. Boeing sponsored this event for the tens of thousands of children in the families of Boeing employees. At that time (and decades before the move to Chicago) Boeing was the heart and soul of Seattle. When Congress pulled funding on the SST project, Seattle was on the verge of closing down. But, Boeing survived and subsequently created some great new airplanes. The 787 concept sounded, well, ‘dreamy’. Who among us, with a whole respect and appreciation for the natural environment that attracted so many young professionals (like my father) to settle in Seattle, would not appreciate Boeing’s progress toward quieter and more fuel efficient aircraft?

1971 photo by Seattle Times

There are many of us who accept the reality that climate change is being driven by excessive human consumption of fossil fuels. We want to see less frequent flying (and less driving, too), but we can sure appreciate Boeing’s progress in aviation. I certainly do. But, we also need to know these aircraft are safe. And we need to know that the regulatory efforts by FAA and other authorities are meaningful, not just show. Not just cover.

A few links:
(hover on the links for descriptions)



With that said, below is a copy of the 2007 proposal,** wherein FAA eventually granted Boeing less regulation related to their Li-ion batteries in the 787-8 model. The full proposal was posted in the Federal Register on 4/30/07,WEB and shows a ‘signoff’ (at the very bottom of the Federal Register item) by Stephen Boyd, Acting Manager, Transport Airplane Directorate, Aircraft Certification Service. Notably, Mr. Boyd’s name is listed, but the accountability rests with the actual Administrator. The FAA administrator at the time was Marion Blakey.WEB She served for five more months, completed her 5-year term as Administrator, and then became head of the Aerospace Industries Association of America (AIA).WEB Blakey had a profound influence on FAA’s culture, including:

  • she emphasized reducing regulation and letting the industry self-regulate, via the ‘Customer Service Initiative’ (CSI), which she had started in 2003. A Congressional hearing on 4/3/08 exposed how this cultural shift had endangered U.S. airline passengers, on aircraft for which numerous airlines were not compliant with safety directives (AD’s). The most extreme example was fuselage cracking on Southwest’s Boeing 737’s, a problem which repeated on 4/1/11 over Yuma, AZ.
  • she ignored the concerns of her own engineers and certification employees, and then rushed the Eclipse 500 VLJ to certification in July 2006. Within two years, Eclipse was bankrupt and Congress held hearings investigating aircraft system failures and FAA’s cultural failures.
  • she imposed a draconian contract on her air traffic controllers, which included major pay changes as well as trivial yet incendiary new workrules, such as a controller dresscode. On the pay issue, she initiated a split payscale, with new hires earning only 70% of what their older coworkers were paid. As for the dresscode, controllers were actually sent home for wearing blue jeans and sneakers to work. Worst of all, the grievance process was broken, so those few controllers who spoke up against these policies incurred retaliatory suspensions, even firings.
  • she experienced the highest rate of whistleblower filings in FAA’s history.

Federal Aviation Administration

14 CFR Part 25

[Docket No. NM375 Special Conditions No. 25-07-10-SC]

Special Conditions: Boeing Model 787-8 Airplane; Lithium Ion 
Battery Installation

AGENCY: Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), DOT.

ACTION: Notice of proposed special conditions.



This notice proposes special conditions for the Boeing Model 787-8 airplane. This airplane will have novel or unusual design features when compared to the state of technology envisioned in the airworthiness standards for transport category airplanes. The Boeing Model 787-8 airplanes will use high capacity lithium ion battery technology in on-board systems. For this design feature, the applicable airworthiness regulations do not contain adequate or appropriate safety standards. These proposed special conditions contain the additional safety standards that the Administrator considers necessary to establish a level of safety equivalent to that established by the existing airworthiness standards. Additional special conditions will be issued for other novel or unusual design features of the Boeing Model 787-8 airplanes.


Comments must be received on or before June 14, 2007.

Novel or Unusual Design Features

The 787 will incorporate a number of novel or unusual design features. Because of rapid improvements in airplane technology, the applicable airworthiness regulations do not contain adequate or appropriate safety standards for these design features. These proposed special conditions for the 787 contain the additional safety standards that the Administrator considers necessary to establish a level of safety equivalent to that established by the existing airworthiness standards.
The 787 design includes planned use of lithium ion batteries for the following applications:

  • Main and Auxiliary Power Unit (APU) Battery/Battery Charger System
  • Flight Control Electronics
  • Emergency Lighting System
  • Recorder Independent Power Supply

Large, high capacity, rechargeable lithium ion batteries are a novel or unusual design feature in transport category airplanes. This type of battery has certain failure, operational, and maintenance characteristics that differ significantly from those of the nickel-cadmium and lead-acid rechargeable batteries currently approved for installation on large transport category airplanes. The FAA is proposing this special condition to require that (1) All characteristics of the lithium ion battery and its installation that could affect safe operation of the 787 are addressed, and (2) appropriate maintenance requirements are established to ensure the availability of electrical power from the batteries when needed.


The current regulations governing installation of batteries in large transport category airplanes were derived from Civil Air Regulations (CAR) part 4b.625(d) as part of the re-codification of CAR 4b that established 14 CFR part 25 in February, 1965. The new battery requirements, 14 CFR 25.1353(c)(1) through (c)(4), basically reworded the CAR requirements.

Battery requirements for large transport airplanes were drafted in 1965. They were redrafted in 1977 and 1978,  for NiCad battery usage. This amendment, done 29-years later, was for Li-ion technology.

Increased use of nickel-cadmium batteries in small airplanes resulted in increased incidents of battery fires and failures. This led to additional rulemaking affecting large transport category airplanes as well as small airplanes. On September 1, 1977, and March 1, 1978, respectively the FAA issued 14 CFR 25.1353c(5) and c(6), governing nickel-cadmium battery installations on large transport category airplanes.

The proposed use of lithium ion batteries for the emergency lighting system on the 787 has prompted the FAA to review the adequacy of these existing regulations. Our review indicates that existing regulations do not adequately address several failure, operational, and maintenance characteristics of lithium ion batteries that could affect the safety and reliability of the 787’s lithium ion battery installation.

At present, there is limited experience with use of rechargeable lithium ion batteries in applications involving commercial aviation. However, other users of this technology, ranging from wireless telephone manufacturing to the electric vehicle industry, have noted safety problems with lithium ion batteries. These problems include overcharging, over-discharging, and flammability of cell components.

1. Overcharging

In general, lithium ion batteries are significantly more susceptible to internal failures that can result in self-sustaining increases in temperature and pressure (thermal runaway) than their nickel-cadmium or lead-acid counterparts. This is especially true for overcharging, which causes heating and destabilization of the components of the cell, leading to formation (by plating) of highly unstable metallic lithium. The metallic lithium can ignite, resulting in a self-sustaining fire or explosion. Finally, the severity of thermal runaway from overcharging increases with increasing battery capacity, because of the higher amount of electrolytes in large batteries.

2. Over-Discharging

Discharge of some types of lithium ion batteries beyond a certain voltage (typically 2.4 volts) can cause corrosion of the electrodes of the cell, resulting in loss of battery capacity that cannot be reversed by recharging. This loss of capacity may not be detected by the simple voltage measurements commonly available to flightcrews as a means of checking battery status. This is a problem shared with nickel-cadmium batteries.

3. Flammability of Cell Components

Unlike nickel-cadmium and lead-acid batteries, some types of lithium ion batteries use liquid electrolytes that are flammable. The electrolytes can serve as a source of fuel for an external fire, if there is a breach of the battery container.

These problems experienced by users of lithium ion batteries raise concern about use of these batteries in commercial aviation. The intent of these proposed special conditions is to establish appropriate airworthiness standards for lithium ion battery installations in the 787 and to ensure, as required by 14 CFR 25.601, that these battery installations are not hazardous or unreliable. To address these concerns, these proposed special conditions adopt the following requirements:

Those sections of 14 CFR 25.1353 that are applicable to lithium ion batteries.

  • The flammable fluid fire protection requirements of 14 CFR 25.863. In the past, this rule was not applied to batteries of transport category airplanes, since the electrolytes used in lead-acid and nickel-cadmium batteries are not flammable.
  • New requirements to address the hazards of overcharging and over-discharging that are unique to lithium ion batteries.
  • New maintenance requirements to ensure that batteries used as spares are maintained in an appropriate state of charge.
  • These proposed special conditions are similar to special conditions adopted for the Airbus A380 (71 FR 74755); December 13, 2006).


As discussed above, these proposed special conditions are applicable to the 787. Should Boeing apply at a later date for a change to the type certificate to include another model incorporating the same novel or unusual design features, these proposed special conditions would apply to that model as well under the provisions of Sec. 21.101.


This action would affect only certain novel or unusual design features of the 787. It is not a rule of general applicability, and it would affect only the applicant that applied to the FAA for approval of these features on the airplane.

List of Subjects in 14 CFR Part 25

  • Aircraft, Aviation safety, Reporting and recordkeeping requirements.
  • The authority citation for these Special Conditions is as follows:
  • Authority: 49 U.S.C. 106(g), 40113, 44701, 44702, 44704.

The Proposed Special Conditions

Accordingly, the Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) proposes the following special conditions as part of the type certification basis for the Boeing Model 787-8 airplane.

In lieu of the requirements of 14 CFR 25.1353(c)(1) through (c)(4), the following special conditions apply. Lithium ion batteries on the Boeing Model 787-8 airplane must be designed and installed as follows:

(1) Safe cell temperatures and pressures must be maintained during any foreseeable charging or discharging condition and during any failure of the charging or battery monitoring system not shown to be extremely remote. The lithium ion battery installation must preclude explosion in the event of those failures.
(2) Design of the lithium ion batteries must preclude the occurrence of self-sustaining, uncontrolled increases in temperature or pressure.
(3) No explosive or toxic gases emitted by any lithium ion battery in normal operation, or as the result of any failure of the battery charging system, monitoring system, or battery installation not shown to be extremely remote, may accumulate in hazardous quantities within the airplane.
(4) Installations of lithium ion batteries must meet the requirements of 14 CFR 25.863(a) through (d).
(5) No corrosive fluids or gases that may escape from any lithium ion battery may damage surrounding structure or any adjacent systems, equipment, or electrical wiring of the airplane in such a way as to cause a major or more severe failure condition, in accordance with 14 CFR 25.1309(b) and applicable regulatory
(6) Each lithium ion battery installation must have provisions to prevent any hazardous effect on structure or essential systems caused by the maximum amount of heat the battery can generate during a short circuit of the battery or of its individual cells.
(7) Lithium ion battery installations must have a system to control the charging rate of the battery automatically, so as to prevent battery overheating or overcharging, and,
(i) A battery temperature sensing and over-temperature warning system with a means for automatically disconnecting the battery from its charging source in the event of an over-temperature condition, or,
(ii) A battery failure sensing and warning system with a means for automatically disconnecting the battery from its charging source in the event of battery failure.
(8) Any lithium ion battery installation whose function is required for safe operation of the airplane must incorporate a monitoring and warning feature that will provide an indication to the appropriate flight crewmembers whenever the state-of-charge of the batteries has fallen below levels considered acceptable for
dispatch of the airplane.
(9) The Instructions for Continued Airworthiness required by 14 CFR 25.1529 must contain maintenance requirements for measurements of battery capacity at appropriate intervals to ensure that batteries whose function is required for safe operation of the airplane will perform their intended function as long as the battery is installed in the airplane. The Instructions for Continued Airworthiness must also contain procedures for the maintenance of lithium ion batteries in spares storage to prevent the replacement of batteries whose function is required for safe operation of the airplane with batteries that have experienced degraded charge retention ability or other damage due to prolonged storage at a low state of charge.


Note: These special conditions are not intended to replace 14 CFR 25.1353(c) in the certification basis of the Boeing 787-8 airplane. These special conditions apply only to lithium ion batteries and their installations. The requirements of 14 CFR 25.1353(c) remain in effect for batteries and battery installations of the Boeing 787-8 airplane that do not use lithium ion batteries.

Issued in Renton, Washington, on April 23, 2007.

Stephen P. Boyd, Acting Manager, Transport Airplane Directorate, Aircraft Certification Service.
[FR Doc. E7-8186 Filed 4-27-07; 8:45 am]

**FOOTNOTE: some boilerplate portions were removed from this posted copy of the proposal. As background, the general process for amending the battery rules involved Boeing creating a request, FAA attorneys drafting language to post on the Federal Register, an open-period for citizens to submit comments, then a decision finalized by officials in both the FAA Certification and FAA Legal branches.

[Edits: 3-26-13;]