Federal regulators could approve the fix for Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner batteries as early as midmonth, though many jets in the worldwide fleet that’s been grounded for more than 11 weeks may not be carrying passengers until June.
On Friday, Boeing completed the set of tests required by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for its battery fix with an almost two-hour test flight.
The FAA will examine the ground and flight-test data. Boeing wouldn’t have submitted the data unless the results had met the requirements set in advance by the FAA, so approval to allow the 787 to fly passengers again is all but certain.
The agency is not expected to wait for National Transportation Safety Board hearings later in the month that will discuss the investigation into a 787 battery fire in Boston, one of two incidents that prompted the grounding.
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“We expect to deliver all of the materials to the FAA in the coming days,” Boeing said in a statement. “Once we deliver the materials we stand ready to reply to additional requests and continue in dialogue with the FAA to ensure we have met all of their expectations.”
An FAA official, who asked not to be identified, said there will likely be “some back and forth” between the regulator and Boeing as FAA engineers go over the test data.
At the end of that process, FAA certification will pave the way for the 787’s return to passenger service.
However, even after FAA approval is granted, it may take a couple of months to get the fleet of 50 grounded Dreamliners back in service.
All the planes have to be retrofitted with new batteries; idled pilots will have to do some retraining; and the airlines must plan in advance a return to previous schedules.
Dreamliner launch customer All Nippon Airways (ANA) of Japan has revised all its domestic flight schedules on the assumption that the 787 won’t return to its routes before June.
And all ANA flights on four international routes, including Tokyo-Seattle and Tokyo-San Jose, are suspended until June.
Boeing also has more than 20 completed but undelivered Dreamliners, all sitting at Paine Field, that need the fix applied.
Boeing clearly thinks at least the initial FAA clearance won’t be long in coming.
The company has lined up a series of mechanic teams ready to travel across the globe and retrofit on each grounded jet two significantly upgraded lithium-ion batteries.
Aside from Japan, the rest of the grounded in-service 787s are in Chile, Ethiopia, Poland, India, Qatar and the United States.
“One of the teams has already deployed,” said Boeing spokesman Marc Birtel, though he added that the mechanics will not perform any battery work until the solution is certified by the FAA.
Even in normal times, Boeing has so-called Airplane-On-Ground (AOG) teams ready to travel anywhere in the world where a customer’s jet is grounded.
This time, the teams will arrive with complete new battery kits. Each upgraded battery will have a stainless-steel containment box and a 1-inch-diameter titanium tube for venting any gases if overheating occurs.
For each of the batteries on any jet — one forward, just behind and below the cockpit; and one aft, just behind and below the wing — the AOG mechanics will have to drill a new hole in the fuselage and connect the venting tube to that outlet.
Birtel said the AOG teams are “prepared and equipped to support the implementation of approved modifications to the in-service fleet of 787s.”
“AOG teams provide the unique capability for an on-site, comprehensive and integrated modification to airplanes,” he said.
Most of the tests required by the FAA were completed on the ground, either in a lab or in a test plane parked at Paine Field.
Besides the outer containment box and the venting tubes, the new battery system includes high-temperature phenolic glass laminate dividers and clear electrical tape around each of the eight lithium-ion cells to provide both heat and electrical insulation.
To ensure the steel enclosure box can deal with even the worst-case battery overheating incident, one test Boeing conducted entailed igniting propane gas within the box to cause an explosion that had to be completely contained.
The flight test Friday was more routine.
With a crew of 11 aboard, including two FAA representatives, the jet flew a straight shot west across the Olympic Peninsula, south along the coast, then back along the same path to Everett, landing at 12:28 p.m.
Birtel said the intention was “to demonstrate that the new system performs as intended during normal and non-normal flight conditions.”
The “non-normal” testing involved “simulating failed engines, generators, pumps and other equipment on the airplane,” he said.
ANA and Japan Airlines should be first in line for the battery retrofits, though for those airlines the timing must also await approval from Japan’s Civil Aviation Bureau (JCAB).
Typically the Japanese regulator, like aviation regulators worldwide, will simply go with whatever decision is made by the FAA.
Given the serious financial pressure on ANA in particular — it’s had 17 Dreamliners grounded for approaching three months — an industry source in Japan, who asked not to be identified, said the JCAB will likely quickly follow the FAA’s lead.
Dominic Gates: (206) 464-2963 or firstname.lastname@example.org