* Switches to traditional model used on existing jets
* Move aims to prevent further delay to Airbus A350
* Reflects uncertainty over regulatory response to 787
By Tim Hepher
PARIS, Feb 15 Airbus has dropped
lithium-ion batteries of the type that forced the grounding of
Boeing's 787 Dreamliner and will use traditional nickel-cadmium
batteries in its crucially important next passenger jet, the
The European planemaker said on Friday it had taken the
decision to adopt the batteries used on existing models in order
to prevent delays in the A350's entry to service next year, amid
uncertainty over the potential fallout of Boeing's problems.
The move came a week after Reuters reported that Airbus was
considering such a move to limit the risks surrounding the
development of its own $15 billion airliner.
"We want to mature the lithium-ion technology but we are
making this decision today to protect the A350's
entry-into-service schedule," an Airbus spokeswoman said.
Both groups insist the new battery technology is safe and
Airbus took pains to avoid presenting its decision as a swipe
against its U.S. rival as they boast a common stand on safety.
But industry executives, insurance companies and safety
officials have said questions are piling up over the "maturity"
or predictability of lithium-ion technology, as U.S. and
Japanese investigators struggle to find the cause of incidents
that led to the Boeing's grounding crisis.
These included a fire on board a parked 787 in Boston and an
in-flight problem on another plane in Japan.
The A350 is due to enter service in the second half of 2014
compared with an initial target of 2012 when it was launched as
Europe's answer to the lightweight 787 Dreamliner.
The industry's fear is that the failure to identify the
"root cause" of the burning battery incidents leaves too much
uncertainty over whether regulators will certify planes, when
they include the powerful but temperamental power packs.
Those anxieties went up another notch this week when the
U.N. aviation agency banned the carriage of lithium-ion
batteries as cargo in passenger jets.
Analysts say credibility is also at stake after severe
delays on the A380 superjumbo and A400M military airlifter.
Boeing's 787 also began service in 2011 almost 4 years late.
"I think there is a real interest to try not to have more
creeping delays," Leeham Co analyst Scott Hamilton said.
Airbus will still use lithium-ion batteries for a maiden
flight in mid-year and early flight trials but switch to
traditional batteries in time for certification and delivery.
EARLY INDUSTRIAL USES
Uncertainty over whether Airbus can be sure of certifying
the A350 with the new batteries illustrates the scale of the
task Boeing faces in persuading regulators to let the 787 fly.
People familiar with the matter say it is ready to implement
a fix involving a tough fireproof casing for the battery, but
there have been no public signs that regulators would accept
this without a deeper understanding of what caused the fire.
Shares in Airbus parent EADS ended flat, while
shares in French battery maker Saft fell over 1.4
Saft developed the lithium-ion battery for the A350 but is
also expected to supply the fallback solution as Airbus's main
supplier. A spokeswoman said Saft supported Airbus's decision.
Lithium-ion batteries have been in consumer products such as
phones and laptops for years but are relatively new to
industrial applications such as back-up batteries for electrical
systems in jets or energy storage on wind farms.
Their main advantage is that they are lighter and more
powerful but they are sensitive to mishandling and can ignite.
Last March, Airbus itself warned that the risks associated
with lithium-ion required "the attention of the entire
industry," according to a presentation reported by Reuters.
But in a second presentation coinciding with the opening of
an A350 assembly plant in October 2012, Airbus said lithium-ion
was a "less hazardous material compared to previous batteries".
Cutting out weight and allowing airlines to burn less fuel
has been the single-minded goal of aircraft designers for
decades, but rarely more so than with the carbon-fibre A350 and
787 as competition for orders reaches fever pitch.
Switching to heavier nickel-cadmium will mean adding 80
kilogrammes of weight to the A350, which would normally have
engineers fretting, but concerns over delays took precedence.
Surprisingly, industry sources say the nickel battery may be
the same size or even smaller than the lithium one, once the
latter's unique electrical protections are stripped out. The
actual nickel-cadmium cells are larger than lithium-ion ones.
Boeing's options are seen as more limited because its 787
needs more power to support a greater array of electrical
systems - originally one of its futuristic selling points.
Its rival's decision leaves it as the only large commercial
jetmaker relying on lithium-ion for main batteries. However,
Boeing said it remained upbeat about its well-tested design.
"Boeing is confident in the safety and reliability of
lithium-ion batteries," a spokesman said by email. "There's
nothing we've learned in the investigations that would lead us
to a different decision regarding lithium-ion batteries."