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Airbus scraps battery plans after Boeing's 787 struggles

February 15, 2013|By W.J. Hennigan
  • An Airbus A350 XWB under construction at the company's assembly line in Toulouse, France.
An Airbus A350 XWB under construction at the company's assembly line… (Remy Gabalderemy Gabalda/AFP/Getty…)

After ongoing lithium-ion battery problems grounded the worldwide fleet of Boeing Co.’s 787 Dreamliners, European rival Airbus has scrapped plans to use the technology on its new jet.

The A350 XWB wide-body passenger jets will instead use “the proven and mastered” nickel cadmium main batteries, the company said Friday.

“Airbus considers this to be the most appropriate way forward in the interest of program execution and A350 XWB reliability,” the company said.

The A350 XWB, set to enter service in 2014, seats 270 to 350 passengers in typical three-class layouts. The European firm listed the jet at $254.3 million to $332.1 million, depending on the version ordered.

Airbus said the grounds for the change can be traced back to Boeing’s struggles with 787 Dreamliner, which has been undergoing safety investigations.

The Federal Aviation Administration grounded the 787 on Jan. 16, after two separate incidents in less than two weeks in which the plane’s lithium-ion batteries were found to be burning.

Since then, investigators have probed the 787's battery design and certification process. But the root cause remains a mystery.

The FAA has been aware of the potential flammability of lithium-ion batteries for years. Still, when the agency was certifying the 787 for flight operation, it issued special conditions in 2007 for lithium-ion battery installations on the 787 because its regulations didn't cover the technology.

Thanks to their chemistry, the rechargeable batteries can store as much energy as a nickel metal hydride pack that's 50% heavier, while charging and discharging faster than other battery types. That has made them attractive for military applications such as the B-2 bomber and for use on the International Space Station and Mars rover.

Airbus said it is confident the lithium-ion battery architecture it has been developing for the A350 XWB is “robust and safe.” But it has decided to activate its “Plan B” and revert to the nickel cadmium main batteries.

Boeing spokesman Marc Birtel issued a statement on behalf of the Chicago company after Airbus’ announcement.

“Boeing is confident in the safety and reliability of lithium-ion batteries,” he said. “Our years of experience and deep expertise confirm that, like other technologies, when the appropriate battery, system and airplane protections are in place, lithium-ion batteries deliver significant benefits.”

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