FAA OKs Boeing plan to prove battery redesign

Federal regulators on Tuesday approved the Boeing Co.’s plan to redesign 787 lithium-ion batteries, the first step in returning the grounded Dreamliner jet to passenger service.

Boeing will need to “conduct extensive testing and analysis” of the battery redesign, the Federal Aviation Administration said in a statement Tuesday. The agency did not say how long the testing would take, though it is likely to be a weeks-long process.

“We are confident the plan we approved today includes all the right elements to conduct a comprehensive evaluation of the battery system redesign,” FAA Administrator Michael P. Huerta said in a statement.

The FAA grounded 787s on Jan. 16 after lithium-ion batteries on two planes failed. Ray Conner, president of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, presented the company’s proposed solution to the FAA in late February.

On Tuesday, Conner said that Boeing’s proposal has three layers of improvement. Those layers include improved design to prevent and isolate faults. The company also has proposed enhanced production and testing of the battery and components. Finally, Boeing has added a new battery enclosure to “keep any level of battery overheating from affecting the airplane or being noticed by passengers,” Conner said in a statement.

“Working with internal and external experts in battery technology, we have proposed a comprehensive set of solutions designed to significantly minimize the potential for battery failure while ensuring that no battery event affects the continued safe operation of the airplane,” Conner said.

Boeing said it will release additional details about the battery redesign in the future.

The FAA will allow limited test flights on two Boeing 787s to enable the company to verify that the battery redesign will work. In the meantime, the Jan. 16 grounding remains in effect. Boeing had delivered 49 787s to customers. Dreamliner operators have canceled 787 commercial flights through at least the end of April with at least one, LOT Polish Airlines, canceling service through September.

Steven Udvar-Hazy, CEO of Air Lease Corp., which has ordered 12 of the planes, said it could still take months for the plane to fly again and that a very long-term grounding could damage the 787 Dreamliner brand. He receives regular 787 updates from Boeing.

“It’s important to get the airplane back in the air,” Udvar-Hazy said while attending an airplane finance conference in Orlando, Fla. “Every plane has mechanical issues, but this was one that was considered serious by the authorities, and I think Boeing has done everything it can to get that under control.”

Boeing didn’t predict how long it would take to get the planes hauling passengers again. But Boeing spokesman Marc Birtel said that test flights will begin within days.

“Obviously we’re all working toward getting the fleet flying again in the most expeditious manner possible, but we’re certainly not going to shortcut the tests and certification process,” Birtel said.

Last week, the National Transportation Safety Board released a report detailing findings in an investigation of a Jan. 7 battery fire on a Japan Airlines 787 parked at Logan International Airport in Boston. The NTSB has yet to pinpoint the cause of the blaze and plans to hold a hearing and a forum in April about the incident.

Japan’s aviation officials also are investigating a battery failure that caused an All Nippon Airways 787 to make an emergency landing on Jan. 15 in Japan.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has said he won’t allow the 787 to return to service unless he’s “1,000 percent sure” it’s safe. On Tuesday, LaHood said the 787 will not be allowed to carry paying passengers “unless we’re satisfied that the new design ensures the safety of the aircraft and its passengers.”

Boeing shares rose $1.22 to close at $84.16 on Tuesday, and rose another 28 cents to $84.44 in aftermarket trading.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Michelle Dunlop: 425-339-3454; mdunlop@heraldnet.com.

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