European jet maker Airbus Group SE is locked in a dispute with U.S. regulators over the safety of lithium-ion batteries installed on its latest model, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Escalating arguments about the extent of safeguards and testing for such rechargeable batteries— reminiscent of Boeing’s not so distant Dreamliner difficulties with similar technology— come after European regulators already have approved the Airbus systems based on less-stringent requirements.
A green light from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has been pending for months, with Airbus officials expressing optimism last fall that a favorable decision was imminent. But according to people familiar with the process, continuing disagreements pitting the manufacturer against FAA technical experts have created a regulatory logjam and delayed approval.
Airbus said; “we are working with the FAA on certifying a battery solution,” but declined to elaborate.
With the agency continuing to evaluate the matter and no clear timeline for a final decision, the two sides can’t seem to agree on precisely what issues are blocking progress.
The crux of the debate, for many months, revolved around the possibility that the FAA would require the batteries to be enclosed in a rugged stainless steel container, similar to those previously mandated for Boeing’s flagship 787 jets.
According to sources, the FAA demands to conduct a comprehensive test to determine the consequences of batteries being overcharged.
But Airbus officials have balked at performing that test and argued instead that probability analyses are adequate to determine safety margins.
Airbus has allegedly asserted that it would have to disable built-in overcharge protections to comply with FAA testing requirements— resulting in an unrealistic testing scenario. Airbus also contends its internal battery design differs significantly from those used by Boeing, making the container unnecessary.
The containment hardware is heavy but considered to offer foolproof protection against smoke and flames because it eliminates oxygen from the enclosure and vents all gases outside the aircraft.
The clash is the latest example of broader friction involving various certification and policy issues between regulators on opposite sides of the Atlantic.
In an email response, Airbus say the lithium batteries “save weight equivalent to one passenger” versus traditional power cells, and A350s haven’t experienced any overheating, smoke or uncontrolled “thermal runaways.”
Some of the latest arguments over battery safety, which have remained largely behind the scenes, hark back to the controversy that temporarily grounded Boeing’s entire 787 Dreamliner fleet in 2013 in the wake of two separate smoldering-battery incidents. Led by the FAA, regulators worldwide banned the planes from flying passengers for several months until Boeing and agency experts agreed on a range of fixes. They included internal design changes and the beefed-up stainless steel containers.
European regulators already have approved the A350’s lithium batteries without all of those extensive protective features and tests. U.S. carriers need the FAA to separately sign off before they can operate the planes. American, United and Delta all have A350s on order, though they aren’t slated to arrive for years.
Airbus, for its part, has told the FAA that its batteries are smaller, contain less energy and are less prone to overheat than Boeing’s lithium-ion batteries.
When the FAA initially certified the 787 jet, agency and industry officials concluded it would be virtually impossible for the batteries to dangerously overheat. But since some of the original technical assumptions and testing protocols turned out to be wrong, the FAA is now determined to avoid a repeat of those slipups.
Patrick Ky, Europe’s top air-safety official, has talked about tempering collaboration with the U.S. “Let’s not be completely naive” about working in tandem on everything with industry and regulators from both sides of the Atlantic, he told an international safety conference in Washington last month. “At the end of the day,” he added, regulators “must have the power to make decisions.”