Boeing Co. (BA) said safety upgrades to the 787 Dreamliner’s battery systems may allow commercial flights to restart within weeks, ending a two-month grounding of the composite-plastic fleet.
Changes include installing a new enclosure for the battery, a focus of regulatory probes after a fire on one aircraft and smoking on another, and adjusting the charger, Boeing (BA) said in Tokyo today. The device will also undergo more rigorous tests, Boeing Commercial Airplanes President Ray Conner said.
The improvements will allow the resumption of service once the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration signs off, and Air India may lead the way, returning its five jets to flight as soon as April. Boeing would also be able to restart deliveries of the aircraft, for which it has a backlog of more than 800 with a catalog value of about $187 billion.
“It is reasonable to expect that we could be back up and going in weeks, not in months,” Mike Sinnett, vice president and chief project engineer of the 787 program, told reporters in Tokyo. “We understand the work to be done and we’ve got a fairly good notion of how long it will take, and if we miss, it will be by a little, not by a lot.”
Regulators led by the FAA ordered the global fleet of 49 Dreamliners parked on Jan. 16, forcing the eight carriers operating the plane to shuffle their schedules and put other jets into service to fill the gaps.
United Continental (UAL)
Air India’s 787s will start receiving the Boeing modifications next week, and the state-owned airline’s planes may be back in service in April, the country’s aviation regulator, Arun Mishra, said in Delhi.
LOT Polish Airlines SA, which flies two 787s, expects to be among the first carriers to resume flights with them, according to a company statement today. The Warsaw-based carrier said Boeing has agreed that advance payments for 787 deliveries slated for next year will be delayed.
United Continental Holdings Inc. (UAL:US), whose six Dreamliners are the only ones in service at a U.S. carrier, hasn’t changed plans to keep them off its schedule through June 5, with the exception of a Denver-Tokyo flight slated to start in mid-May. Qatar Airways Ltd. had no immediate comment on when its 787s may resume flights, according to an e-mailed statement.
Boeing climbed 2.1 percent to $86.43 in New York, the highest closing price since May 2008. The shares have jumped 11 percent since Jan. 4, the last trading day before the first lithium-ion battery incident.
The Chicago-based planemaker’s proposed redesign of the system was cleared by U.S. regulators this week.
Boeing (BA) will be allowed “limited test flights” with two 787s that will have prototype components of the new battery system, the FAA said March 12. The planemaker must prove in flight and laboratory tests that the design meets U.S. standards, and the FAA could insist on more changes, the agency said in a statement.
Resumption of Dreamliner flights will depend on testing and certification, Sinnett said. About 25 percent of Boeing’s testing is already under way or has been completed, while 75 percent of the test plans have been approved, he said.
Testing should be finished “within the next week or two,” Ron Hinderberger, vice president of 787-8 engineering, said in a second briefing today.
Most of the checks required for certification were already performed in previous weeks, so the company is confident that the new battery will pass when the tests are repeated in the FAA’s approval process, he said. Hinderberger declined to speculate on the agency’s timing.
As part of the improved battery structure, the cells will have a 14-day test with hourly discharge readings, and Boeing will narrow the charge allowed, the planemaker said. Tests for the new battery started early last month, and chargers will be altered and replaced, Sinnett said.
The improvements will add “several layers of additional safety features to the lithium-ion batteries on 787 commercial jetliners,” the planemaker said in a statement.
Some of the existing batteries will be pulled from service because they no longer qualify under the new testing regimen, Hinderberger said.
Conner apologized for the problems and said Boeing will continue to cooperate with Japanese manufacturers. He said he’s “very happy” with Kyoto, Japan-based GS Yuasa Corp. (6674), and plans to be on the first 787 to return to flight.
“In Japan, there is much more feeling of responsibility to customers beyond what an American company would typically feel,” said Christopher McNally, a political economist at Chaminade University in Honolulu who specializes in East-West cultural relations. “A personal apology is very important. It’s very savvy of Boeing” to hold media briefings in Japan, he said.
The battery maker also being Japanese makes the situation even more delicate, McNally said.
“Japan is very, very important,” Conner said. “When you look at the size of the fleet, half the fleet is here in Japan. Our launch customer and our second customer are here, two of our largest customers in the world and 787 operators. We felt this was a very appropriate place to unveil our solution.”
Those customers are All Nippon Airways Co. and Japan Airlines Co., which have a total of 24 of the Dreamliners that have been delivered so far.
Because investigators don’t know what triggered the fire, which occurred on a Japan Airlines 787 parked at the Boston’s airport, or the smoking that prompted an emergency landing by an All Nippon (9202) flight in Japan, the fixes are designed to head off every possible way the batteries can fail, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta told Congress Feb. 28.
The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, which has no regulatory authority and no say on when the Dreamliner can resume flying, issued an interim report March 7 raising new questions about how Boeing determined the batteries were safe.
The NTSB contradicted one assertion today by Sinnett: that the investigation had ruled out a fire within the battery compartment. That statement is premature, said Peter Knudson, a board spokesman.
A witness who tried to fight the Jan. 7 fire said he saw 3- inch (7.6-centimeter) flames outside the lithium-ion battery, and the NTSB has found evidence of high temperatures within battery cells that failed, according to preliminary safety-board documents.
The FAA grounded the 787 after the ANA plane made an emergency landing at Takamatsu airport in southern Japan on Jan. 16. Aviation regulators around the globe followed the FAA’s lead.
A separate FAA review of the 787’s design, manufacturing and assembly is under way.
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