Wichita 787 suppliers eyeing battery inquiry

Wichita suppliers to Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner are keeping a close eye on news of an investigation into battery problems on the world’s most technically advanced jet.

Boeing has halted customer deliveries until it can address electrical problems on the 787, but manufacturing continues.

Suppliers, such as Spirit AeroSystems, have not been affected by the development.

“Boeing’s announcement that it will not deliver to airlines during the review does not impact our production and deliveries to our customer, Boeing,” Spirit AeroSystems spokesman Ken Evans said in an e-mail.

The program is significant to Spirit AeroSystems, which builds the 787’s nose section and stuffs it with the wiring, flight deck and other components before delivery to Boeing.

At Exacta Aerospace, work on the 787 is business as usual, said Casey Voegeli, director of business operations.

There’s been no talk of slowing production.

“We’re concerned about what’s going on,” Voegeli said. But “we don’t see it as a long-term (problem). Boeing can’t afford to let something like this go on. The only way they would slow down production was if it was such an extended period of time before they would get it resolved.”

A spate of incidents, including two reported fires that involved batteries, led federal authorities to ground the 787 until investigators identified the problem or problems and Boeing resolved the issues.

That led Boeing to halt Dreamliner deliveries to its customers.

In an extreme case, Boeing could ask Spirit and other suppliers to slow planned production increases for the 787, said Cai von Rumohr, managing director and senior research analyst specializing in aerospace with Cowen & Co.

Production is rising from the current rate of five per month to 10 a month by the end of 2013.

“The last thing that they would want to do is stop production and then restart it,” von Rumohr said. “It’s cheaper to continue to build.”

The most likely scenario is that there will be little impact to suppliers, he said, although it’s difficult at this point to say for sure.

“Boeing is putting all of its efforts in figuring out what went wrong,” von Rumohr said.

Japanese and U.S. investigators have begun a probe into the maker of the lithium batteries used in the jets, which have been grounded.

On Jan. 7, a fire occurred in a Japan Airlines plane at Logan International Airport in Boston after passengers had already gotten off the plane.

A week ago, an overheated battery forced All Nippon Airways to make an emergency landing in western Japan, which caused the grounding of all 50 787s delivered to the airlines.

Tsutomu Nishijima, a spokesman for GS Yuasa, the battery manufacturer, said that investigators visited the company’s headquarters in Kyoto, Japan, on Monday and that Yuasa was cooperating with the probe.

Two FAA investigators and an investigator from Japan’s government were studying how the batteries were made and assembled and investigating any quality issues, Tatsuyuki Shimazu, the chief air worthiness engineer at the Civil Aviation Bureau’s Aviation Safety Department, said.

“We are in the midst of collecting information, so as to whether there is a problem or not has not yet been determined,” Shimazu said.

The burned insides of the ANA battery showed it received voltage in excess of its design limits. However, a battery that caught fire in the Japan Airlines plane in Boston was found not to be overcharged.

U.S. government investigators said there still could be problems with wiring or other charging components.

Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board had planned to meet with officials from Securaplane Technologies, the manufacturer of the charger for the 787’s lithium ion batteries, at the company’s Tucson, Ariz., headquarters on Tuesday.

“We will not deliver 787s until the FAA approves a means of compliance with their recent airworthiness directive concerning batteries and the approved approach has been implemented,” said Boeing spokesman Marc Birtel.

Some suppliers may be asked to assist.

“Suppliers will be part of the process to develop solutions to address the concerns outlined in the airworthiness directive and may be involved in the ongoing FAA review of the 787,” Birtel said.

Teal Group analyst Richard Aboulafia said the most likely scenario is that the problem will be fixed, “pretty quick.”

However, “at this point, you can’t rule anything out, really.”

The odds of a worst-case scenario — the need for a massive electrical redesign to the plane — are slim, he said.

Boeing will feel a financial impact from the problem, however.

Between investigation costs and compensation to the airlines that are canceling flights, there are “many different ways to bleed cash,” Aboulafia said.

The problems with the 787 have gained widespread attention.

“That’s the aircraft to watch for everybody,” said Voegeli with Exacta Aerospace. New airplane programs at other manufacturers also run into problems, he said.

Still, “this is the time to get the bugs worked out and get it figured out,” Voegeli said – while relatively few 787 have been delivered.

The concerns don’t change the underlying appeal of the 787, Voegeli said.

“It’s going to be such a strong program when they get everything worked out,” Voegeli said.

Contributing: Associated Press