By CHRISTOPHER DREW and JAD MOUAWAD
Published: April 19, 2013
Boeing’s 787s could be flying again within weeks, a major milestone for the innovative passenger jets that have been grounded since January because of battery problems.
The Federal Aviation Administration on Friday approved Boeing’s plans to fix the plane’s lithium-ion batteries after two erupted in smoke and fire on separate planes. Boeing has deployed teams of technicians around the world to quickly install the modified batteries on the 50 jets that have been delivered so far and return them to service as soon as possible.
More important, the F.A.A.’s decision frees Boeing to resume deliveries of 787s in the next two months, a critical step for the plane maker and for airlines that have been eagerly awaiting the new, more fuel-efficient jets. Boeing said Friday that it would deliver all 787s that were planned this year.
The battery problems have probably cost Boeing hundreds of millions of dollars, and airlines are likely to seek financial compensation for the delays. Still, Boeing has not seen an impact on the 800 orders it has booked for the plane, which promises fuel cost savings of 20 percent. The 787 is the first commercial aircraft built largely from lighter carbon-composite materials, and it uses more electrical systems than conventional airplanes.
Investors appeared to have shrugged off the issue as well, possibly out of confidence that Boeing would fix the problem. The company’s shares rose 2.14 percent, to $87.96, on Friday, and the stock is up $10 since the fleet was grounded.
Investigators in the United States and Japan have still not been able to identify precisely what caused the batteries to overheat, and, in one case, ignite. Boeing’s fixes include better insulation for the batteries’ eight cells, and a stainless steel box designed to encase the batteries and contain fire and vent possible smoke or hazardous gases out of the planes. Mike Sinnett, Boeing’s chief engineer for the 787, said that the tests performed in the last month showed the batteries were now much less likely to overheat.
Boeing engineers have also made modifications to the plane’s power panels and generators, including replacing some parts and bringing components “up to the latest standards,” Mr. Sinnett said. Those changes were not linked to the battery system, and were not required by the F.A.A., he said, but they had failed in the past and caused problems before the planes were grounded.
The F.A.A. administrator, Michael P. Huerta, and the transportation secretary, Ray LaHood, said they were satisfied that the proposed changes would eliminate concerns that batteries could erupt in smoke or fire.
The changes “will ensure the safety of the aircraft and its passengers,” Mr. LaHood said Friday.
The F.A.A. will issue a final directive to effectively lift the grounding order and allow each plane operated by an American carrier to return to service as soon as it is modified. So far, United Airlines is the only airline in the United States with 787s in its fleet.
Boeing said it takes just five days for the new system to be installed and has dispatched 300 mechanics around the world to perform the work.
Aviation regulators in Japan and other countries must also weigh in and approve the system. Japan, in particular, is a critical market for Boeing. About half of all 787s delivered until now are operated by two Japanese airlines — All Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines — and Japanese companies manufactured about a third of the plane’s components, including its wings. A Japanese company, GS Yuasa, built the battery.
The Japanese transportation minister, Akihiro Ota, said Friday in Tokyo that Japan’s own assessment of the safety of Boeing’s battery changes was “in its final stages.”
“We’re doing our best to ensure a safe and speedy return to service,” he said.
But Japanese regulators could ask Boeing for additional safeguards, the Nikkei business newspaper reported Friday. Those could include adding devices to transmit voltage and other vital data to controllers on the ground so the batteries can be routinely monitored for irregularities, according to the Nikkei report.
To demonstrate their autonomy from their American counterparts, and to temper passenger fears of flying on a 787, Japanese officials could also require test flights of each plane fitted with the altered battery, the Nikkei said. Regulators in Tokyo could also ask the airlines to conduct more frequent battery checks and retire the batteries after a set period, even if they do not show signs of wear.
Still, airlines are eager for the planes to fly again. All Nippon Airways and United Airlines had both included the 787 on domestic and international routes in flight schedules that start on May 31, provided that aviation authorities lifted the plane’s grounding.
Another operator, Qatar Airlines, had suggested it would seek an even more aggressive schedule and wanted to get the planes back in the air before the end of April.
The government’s decision to approve the fixes was not a surprise. The F.A.A.’s engineers oversaw Boeing’s design of the changes as well as more than 20 types of tests conducted on them over the last month. Boeing had said that it had successfully wrapped up the tests in a flight by a 787 on April 5.
The F.A.A. approval also came before the National Transportation Safety Board hearings next week on why a battery ignited while a plane was parked in Boston on Jan. 7. The board is also examining how Boeing and the F.A.A. underestimated any risks in approving the original battery design in 2007.
By approving the fixes ahead of the safety board’s hearings, the F.A.A. — and Boeing — presumably hopes to deflect any criticism about how it originally certified the plane. The agency could argue that, if the risks were underestimated initially, the new battery system should prevent that from happening again.
Boeing said it had spent more than 100,000 hours on developing its test plans and analyzing results for the new design and brought in more than a dozen battery experts from other industries, government and universities to review its findings.
Mr. Sinnett, the 787 engineer, said the new system was “permanent and comprehensive” and would be used on a longer version of the 787, known as the Dash-9. “We don’t see a need to change course at all,” Mr. Sinnett said.
Aviation experts said Boeing had acquired valuable knowledge about the lithium-ion batteries, a technology that is being used for the first time so extensively in commercial jets, and might yet refine it when the company builds newer versions of the 787.
Boeing has defended its decision to use these batteries because they can pack more energy than more conventional types of batteries.
“I think they have got as much done in three months as three years of experience could have told us,” said Hans J. Weber, the president of Tecop International, an aviation consulting firm. “The battery in four years may look very different.”
Hiroko Tabuchi contributed reporting.