Airbus said it will revert to traditional battery technology for its new A350 wide-body aircraft instead of the lithium-ion power source that grounded Boeing’s competing 787 Dreamliner after malfunctions.
The change is being made to protect the program schedule and avoid certification delays, Airbus said in a statement today. The timeline, with first flight midyear and planned entry into service by late 2014, won’t change. Airbus said it will continue tests on the new batteries, while calling the cadmium type “proven and mastered.”
While Airbus has stressed that its battery architecture on the A350 differs from that of the Dreamliner, it didn’t want to risk moving ahead with a new technology while safety experts continue to struggle identifying the origins of the malfunctions on the Boeing 787. As standard batteries are twice the size of lithium-ion, Airbus will need to redesign the area where they’re housed and change some interfaces, a task made easier because the A350 isn’t yet in serial production.
“The root causes of the two recent industry Li-ion main batteries incidents remain unexplained to the best of our knowledge,” Airbus said in a statement. “In this context, and with a view to ensuring the highest level of program certainty, Airbus has decided to activate its ‘Plan B.’”
European Aeronautic, Defence & Space, the parent company of Airbus, declined as much as 1.5 per cent in Paris trading before rebounding to close at 34.90 euros, a gain of less than 0.1 per cent. Saft Groupe SA, the battery provider for the A350 and other Airbus programs, dropped 1.5 per cent to 19.98 euros.
“Airbus’s move to cadmium batteries is a sensible one, as they are understood and have been tested,” Cathay Pacific Airways chief executive John Slosar said today in an interview. “And anything that helps to remove uncertainty now is a good thing.”
Cathay Pacific is one of the A350’s larger customers, with 26 A350-1000s and 20 A350-900s in the backlog.
For Airbus, switching to nickel cadmium is simpler because the company so far has built only one flyable A350, along with a static test plane and won’t need to reconfigure large numbers of existing jets.
Boeing, which intends to stick with the lithium-ion technology, said today that it hasn’t learned anything during the investigation that would spur a different decision.
The planemaker is “working tirelessly to create the solutions that will allow the 787 fleet to return to full flight status,” Marc Birtel, a company spokesman, said in an e-mailed statement.
Both planemakers had sought to use lithium-ion because it’s lighter and takes up half the space of nickel cadmium batteries. Boeing 787s use two units, while Airbus’s A350 had planned to use four, each smaller and with half the power of the Boeing batteries. The additional weight from switching back will be about 100 kilograms (220 pounds) per plane, a person familiar with discussions said last week.
Batteries are used in large aircraft to start the auxiliary power unit, which ignites the engines. During flight, such batteries function merely as backup power, in the rare event that engines stop working and the generators that draw power from them lose their means to run various functions, including control of wing surfaces, which steer the plane.
Airbus said it has begun additional maturity studies on the behavior of lithium-ion main batteries in aerospace operations and “will naturally take on board the findings of the ongoing official investigation.” Even with the switch, the previous battery architecture it had been developing with Saft was“robust and safe,” Airbus said.
Saft said the decision won’t create any revenue shortfall for that company because it hasn’t been selling Li-ion batteries to planemakers except the F35 combat jet built by Lockheed Martin Corp.
“We think Airbus will continue to develop the Li-ion battery in parallel, and we may have both types of batteries qualified for the A350,” Saft spokeswoman Jill Ledger said.
Initial flight tests will proceed with the existing lithium-ion batteries, according to the company. The Federal Aviation Administration has also allowed Boeing to conduct test flights to speed efforts toward a fix of its 787 batteries.
“It suggests that Airbus thinks that the Li-ion problems could be intractable or at least take too long to fix to avoid the risk of inducing delays in A350’s entry into service in late 2014, so that suggests what everyone probably already realizes: this is a difficult problem and could take some months to resolve,” said Nick Cunningham, managing partner at Agency Partners in London.
The global 787 fleet was grounded on Jan. 16 following a fire on a Japan Airlines plane that U.S. safety experts determined had originated in a lithium-ion battery. US National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman said last week that assumptions in certifying the 787’s batteries should be reconsidered after investigators found that a short-circuit in one cell had set off a chain reaction, destroying the unit.