By Michelle Dunlop Herald Writer
Aviation officials approved Boeing’s new 787 battery system Friday, clearing the way for the Dreamliner to resume passenger flights after being grounded for three months.
“The Boeing team is ready to help get our customers’ 787s back in the air where they belong,” Ray Conner, president of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, said in a statement.
Boeing mechanics on Friday were to begin retrofitting customer 787s with an enhanced battery system after the Federal Aviation Administration signed off on the new design. Early next week, the FAA will issue the formal airworthiness directive, allowing 787 operators to return their Dreamliners to commercial service after modification.
The 787 has been grounded from passenger service since Jan. 16 after the jet’s lithium-ion battery failed on two 787s. The National Transportation Safety Board, which is holding an investigative hearing next week on the problem, continues to search for the cause of a Jan. 7 battery fire on a Japan Airlines 787 in Boston.
Despite the lack of a root cause, Boeing officials voiced confidence Friday in their updated battery system. The system, which the FAA will require on all 787s, includes an improved cell and battery, enhancements to the battery charger and the addition of a containment and venting system.
“It’s been a long haul, that’s for sure,” Mike Sinnett, 787 chief project engineer, said in a conference call with journalists. “The 787 is and remains a great airplane.”
Boeing still could face a challenge convincing passengers of that. But both Sinnett and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood reiterated on Friday that the traveling public’s safety is their top priority.
“These changes to the 787 battery will ensure the safety of the aircraft and its passengers,” LaHood said in a statement.
Analyst Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group called the FAA certification a positive step. But “we’ll see whether it moves forward as planned.”
In returning the 787 to service, the FAA will not restrict 787s from long-distance flights that take the airplane up to three hours away from the nearest airport. FAA Administrator Michael Huerta earlier this week said long-range flight certification for the 787 was under review. Long-distance flights are important to customers like Japan Airlines, which was flying the 787 between Tokyo and Boston.
The FAA will observe the installation of new battery systems and is sending teams of investigators to modification sites. Boeing has dispatched 10 teams, 300 employees in all, to customer locations around the world, the company said.
The FAA gave Boeing permission last month to flight-test the revamped system. The company completed the required testing earlier this month. Huerta called Boeing’s testing “rigorous” and noted the FAA had devoted weeks to analyzing the design changes.
“The FAA set a high bar for our team and our solution,” Boeing CEO Jim McNerney said in a statement. “We appreciate the diligence, expertise and professionalism of the FAA’s technical team.”
The FAA’s initial certification process will be in question at the NTSB hearing next week. The agency announced on Friday that the agenda will include at least six Boeing officials.
U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., applauded the work of Boeing engineers and the FAA. He vowed to make sure Congress and aviation officials “review the lessons learned through this certification process.”
The FAA’s action only directly affects United Airlines, which is the only U.S. airline with 787s. The airline is “mapping out” a plan to return the 787 to service, said a United spokeswoman.
Aviation authorities in other countries are expected to swiftly follow suit. Japanese aviation officials were expected soon to finish their investigation of a Jan. 15 incident involving a 787 belonging to launch customer All Nippon Airways. Japanese carriers have 24 of the 50 Dreamliners that were delivered before the grounding.
Boeing will begin installing the updated battery system on 787s parked in Everett and North Charleston, S.C., after helping customers return already-delivered 787s to service. The company continued building Dreamliner jets during the grounding.
Chicago-based Boeing said Friday that the grounding hasn’t changed the company’s delivery goal for 2013, and Boeing doesn’t anticipate a significant financial impact to 2013 earnings.
Boeing shares rose $1.84, or 2.1 percent, to close at $87.96 Friday.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Boeing had delivered 50 787s to airlines around the world when the fleet was grounded in January. Here’s who owns them:
- All Nippon Airways, 17
- Japan Airlines, 7
- Air India, 6
- United Continental Holdings Inc., U.S., 6
- Qatar Airways, 5
- Ethiopian Airlines, 4
- LAN Airlines (Chile), 3
- LOT Polish Airlines, 2
Steps to resuming 787 flights
- The Federal Aviation Administration certified the redesigned battery system on April 19.
- Crews will install the new system in previously delivered 787s, a process which takes five days per plane.
- Aviation regulators are to give formal operational approval early next week.
- Dreamliner customers will return jets to service.
- Boeing will retrofit previously built but undelivered 787s in Everett and North Charleston, S.C., and will resume deliveries of 787s as they come off the assembly lines.