When a fleet of new planes goes into daily service, problems surface that pre-production testing was not able to bring to light. The 787 is no different. But, when three things of no great importance were reported in three days, the media went into a feeding frenzy.
On January 7th, a battery on a Japan Airlines 787 caught fire while the plane was parked on the ground. Just as the battery in a car starts the engine, a battery on the plane is used to start the Auxiliary Power Unit (APU). The APU produces electricity and pressurized air to power the plane when it is parked. The APU is designed to operate unattended. If any fault is detected, the APU automatically shuts itself down. In case of a fire, an alarm signals the ground crew to determine whether the fire extinguisher needs to be used.
If a battery fire were to develop during flight, a warning would go off in the cockpit. The pilots could then press a button to discharge the APU's fire extinguisher.
Lithium ion batteries have twice the storage capacity of nickel-cadmium batteries. More stored power means more potential to overheat if a battery fails internally or is overcharged. Lithium ion batteries have been known to catch on fire in laptop computers and on hybrid cars. Boeing designed the 787 - the first airliner to use lithium ion batteries - with this potential in mind. A possible area of concern is whether the use of lithium ion batteries on the 787 call for more safeguards than those already in place.
Following the battery fire, the media reported a fuel leak. Not true. The fuel tanks on airliners have a vent system. If a fuel tank is filled to max, as the fuel warms, it expands. The increased volume can cause fuel to slosh out the vent when the plane is taxiing out for takeoff. I've had this happen on trips from JFK to Tokyo where we wanted the tanks filled as full as possible. When taxiing, if the pilot of some other plane - who doesn't realize it is insignificant - reports the spill to the tower by radio, though everything is OK, the captain has no choice but to taxi back to the terminal and have the plane checked.
Should anxious fliers avoid the 787? Some passengers believe that new planes are safer. Though new planes are remarkably safe, passengers can slightly increase their safety by waiting several years after a plane has entered service before flying on it.
The third thing? On the other side of the planet, an All Nippon Airways 787 flight was cancelled when a computer indicated there was a problem with the plane's brakes. As it turns out, it was a false alarm. If you have been alarmed, thank the media for - like that computer - feeding you a false alarm.