FAA mum on Boeing 787 timeline

Federal regulators could nix long-range flights of Boeing’s 787, even if they approve the Dreamliner’s return to passenger service, the top aviation official said Tuesday.

The Federal Aviation Administration could weigh in “very soon” on whether Boeing’s redesigned battery system makes the jet fit to fly, Michael Huerta, FAA administrator, told Bloomberg News after testifying in front of the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee in Washington, D.C. Huerta didn’t provide a specific date when the FAA will rule on the 787.

Huerta told committee members that the agency separately is reviewing the 787’s long-range flight certification. Before the Jan. 16 grounding by the FAA, the 787 was certified to fly as far as three hours from an airport. That range applies for the most part to over-water flights. The FAA is reviewing the 787’s initial long-range certification and will determine whether to return the Dreamliner to passenger service with the same flight parameters.

Huerta provided the update on Boeing’s 787 during an aviation safety hearing of the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee. The hearing was webcast Tuesday.

The FAA grounded Boeing 787s on Jan. 16 after two Dreamliners experienced battery failures. Boeing had delivered 49 of the new fuel-efficient 787s at the time of the grounding.

Boeing presented a plan last month to the FAA to return the 787 to commercial flight. That proposal included a redesign of the 787’s lithium-ion battery system and the inclusion of a containment system, Huerta said.

After Boeing and the FAA agreed on a re-certification plan, Boeing “embarked on a series of tests” geared to proving that the new battery system would function safely in flight, he said. In all, Boeing performed about 20 tests. The Chicago-based jet maker has completed all testing and analysis on the redesigned battery system, Huerta said. The FAA is reviewing the company’s report.

Limiting the 787’s flight distance from airports could prove difficult for Boeing customers like Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways. Japan Airlines was the first to introduce 787 service to the U.S. with a route between Tokyo and Boston. ANA, which had 17 787s in its fleet as of Jan. 16, was flying the jet on a number of international routes, including Tokyo to Frankfurt. Prior to the Dreamliner’s grounding, United Airlines, the only U.S.-based carrier to have received a 787, had planned to begin service between Denver and Tokyo.

Boeing has 890 orders for the mostly composite 787. The company continues to build Dreamliner jets in Everett and North Charleston, S.C., as it works toward a goal of building 10 787s monthly by the end of 2013.

Huerta, along with Deborah Hersman, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, were among witnesses called to testify at a hearing about aviation safety.

The NTSB continues to investigate the Jan. 7 fire and smoke incident involving a 787 in Boston, Hersman said. The safety board last week held a forum on the use of lithium-ion batteries in transportation. The NTSB also plans to hold a hearing next week on the 787 battery problems.

Senators also questioned Huerta about the effects of budget cuts on the FAA, which has announced a plan to close control towers at 149 small airports.

Herald reporter Michelle Dunlop: 425-339-3454 or mdunlop@heraldnet.com.

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