Boeing begins 787 repairs

TOKYO — Boeing has begun repairs on the 787 Dreamliner to fix a battery fault that grounded the fleet for three months as it enters talks with airlines to resume deliveries and meet a full-year production target.

ANA Holdings, the biggest 787 operator, started repairs Monday morning at four airports around Japan, Ryosei Nomura, a spokesman, said by telephone from Tokyo. Japan Airlines Co. has also started fixing the batteries, according to a person familiar with plan, who declined to be identified as the information isn’t public.

The global fleet of 49 Dreamliners was grounded worldwide on Jan. 16 after lithium-ion batteries on two separate planes overheated and melted, causing flights to be canceled and cutting revenue at the operators. Boeing has dispatched about 300 personnel on 10 teams to airlines to install the fix over five days while preparing the handover of new 787s.

“We are starting to have detailed conversations with all of our customers about delivery timing,” Larry Loftis, Boeing 787 vice president and general manager, told journalists in London. “We don’t have specific dates right now.”

Deliveries will resume “within weeks,” Loftis said. Production of 787s, which had reached 5 aircraft per month when the fleet was grounded in January, is now reaching seven. Loftis said there are no reasons 2013 production targets will not be met, including an output level of 10 787s per month.

The cost of the modification is “fairly small,” Loftis said, while declining to specify what the total cost of the grounding will be. Boeing, the world’s largest aircraft maker, reports first-quarter earnings on Wednesday.

ANA and JAL are waiting for approval from the Federal Aviation Administration and Japan’s Civil Aviation Bureau before they can restart flights. ANA expects to complete repairs on its 787s next month.

“Pilots will be able to fly the planes soon after studying the changes to the manual,” said Toshikazu Nagasawa, a director at the Air Line Pilots’ Association of Japan, which has about 4,500 members. “The biggest problem will be getting passengers to fly on the planes.”

The airlines received service bulletins on repairs from Boeing after it last week won approval from the FAA for the 787’s redesigned battery system. The FAA said it will issue a directive this week to let flights resume once the battery fixes are made.

Both airlines still need permission from Japan’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism before they can fly the planes. The ministry’s Civil Aviation Bureau is in its final stages of the Dreamliner probe, Shigeru Takano, the agency’s director in charge of air transport safety, said last week in Tokyo.

Japan will wait until after a two-day National Transportation Safety Board hearing on the JAL 787 battery fire starting Tuesday before making a decision on the resumption of flights, Takano said by telephone Monday in Tokyo.

Boeing engineers will arrive in India on April 24, after the work in Japan, to apply the fix for Air India, which expects to resume 787 services by May 15 at the latest, Rohit Nandan, the company’s chairman, said Monday in New Delhi.

LOT Polish Airlines, Europe’s first operator of the jet, said Boeing engineers will implement the battery fix for its two 787s in Addis Ababa next month. The carrier, which has demanded compensation from Boeing, expects to receive a third 787 next month with plans to resume service in the summer, it said in an e-mailed statement.

The battery fix adds about 150 pounds of weight to a 787. Boeing has begun exploring design enhancement to the fix to cut weight as well as production and maintenance costs, Loftis said.

British Airways, Thomson Airways and Norwegian Air Shuttle, among the next European recipients of 787s, said they’re awaiting new delivery dates from the aircraft maker. “We remain in contact with Boeing about our delivery schedule but have no dates to announce at this stage,” London-based International Consolidated Airlines Group SA, parent of British Airways, said by email.

United Continental Holdings, the only U.S. carrier with Dreamliners, called the FAA’s move a “good step forward.” The airline is selling seats for Dreamliner flights starting May 31 for domestic routes including Houston-Denver, and is targeting June 10 to begin new service between Denver and Tokyo.

“We are mapping out a return-to-service plan, and we look forward to getting our 787s back in the air,” Christen David, a spokeswoman for the Chicago-based carrier, said last week.

The 787 will still be allowed to travel as far as 180 minutes from the nearest airport, enabling it to be used on over-ocean routes, FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said last week. Loftis said an effort to extend that to 330 minutes, cut short by the grounding, will resume.

Neither the FAA nor the NTSB has determined what caused the battery faults that sparked a Jan. 7 fire on a JAL 787 in Boston and forced an emergency landing by an ANA jet in Japan nine days later.

“It is possible we will never know the specific root cause,” Loftis said, adding that the upgrade now being installed should cover all eventualities.

Boeing’s reworked battery includes more protection around the cells to contain overheating, a steel case to prevent any fire from spreading and a tube that vents fumes outside the fuselage.

The Dreamliner is the only large commercial jet equipped with lithium-ion batteries as part of its power system. GS Yuasa Corp. makes the batteries, which are part of an electrical power conversion system built by France’s Thales. United Technologies Corp.’s aerospace unit supplies the system, which uses enough electricity to power 400 homes.

Airbus SAS abandoned lithium-ion batteries for its A350, the direct rival to the 787, after Boeing encountered problems. Airbus plans first A350 deliveries next year.

Boeing efforts to identify the battery fix, which has required more than 200,000 hours of engineering work, have not affected work on the 787-9, a larger model, or other development programs, Loftis said.

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