FAA OKs test flights for modified, pre-delivery 787s

Federal regulators have given the strongest signal yet that they’ll return the Boeing 787 to passenger service soon, giving the company the OK for flights typically done right before aircraft are delivered.

Boeing conducted such a “production” flight Thursday using a 787 that had not been delivered to a customer, spokesman Marc Birtel confirmed in an email. That airplane, which will be delivered to 787 launch customer All Nippon Airways, contained the redesigned battery system that is key to getting the jet back in commercial service.

The federal government’s approval was first reported by the blog All Things 787.

During such post-production, pre-delivery flights, Boeing checks to make sure the aircraft performs as designed. Production flights are among the last steps prior to a jet being handed over to a customer.

Thursday’s flight marked the first such flight since the Federal Aviation Administration grounded the 787 on Jan. 16, following battery failures on two Dreamliner jets. Boeing has redesigned the lithium-ion battery and added a containment box as well as a system to vent any smoke should the battery short-circuit.

The FAA previously granted Boeing limited flight testing permission for the 787 to test whether the new battery system worked. The company also has conducted flights to test improvements to General Electric engines and the aircraft’s power panel.

Earlier this week, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said his decision could come “very soon” on whether to allow Boeing customers to begin passenger flights with 787s. However, Huerta said, the FAA is re-examining the 787’s long-distance certification, which allows the jet to fly three hours from the nearest airport. That certification is important to airlines like ANA, which flies the 787 on long-haul flights across the ocean.

It’s unclear whether the FAA will issue a decision before next week’s two-day hearing on the 787, called by the National Transportation Safety Board. The NTSB is investigating one of the two battery incidents that led to the 787’s grounding. The NTSB held an informal forum last week on the use of lithium-ion batteries in transportation.

In anticipation of the FAA’s decision, Boeing has deployed teams around the world to install the 787’s redesigned battery system on jets already in the hands of customers. That work is expected to take four to five days per plane. The Boeing teams will not begin to swap out battery systems until the FAA gives the nod, Birtel said.

Boeing had delivered 49 787s to customers at the time of the Jan. 16 grounding.

Meanwhile, the company is testing refinements of components such as the GE engines and power panel that would improve the plane’s reliability and performance, Birtel wrote. It will be up to customers to decide when or if those improvements are made to the planes they ordered.

Birtel declined to say how many 787s at Paine Field or at the company’s South Carolina site have been equipped with the new battery system and would be ready for test flight. Boeing continued to build 787s in both locations despite the FAA’s grounding and has numerous early-built 787s lined up in Everett awaiting various modifications to bring those jets up to required specifications.

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

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