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FAA allows test flights of Boeing 787 Dreamliner

A Boeing 787 jet thhas been Meacham International Airport Fort Worth Texas for about month while being painted for ChinSouthern

A Boeing 787 jet that has been at Meacham International Airport in Fort Worth, Texas for about a month while being painted for China Southern, prepares to take off Thursday, Feb. 7, 2013. The plane later landed at Paine field at Everett, Wash., near the factory where it was assembled. The Federal Aviation Administration gave the company permission to relocate the plane. Other 787s have been grounded since last month by battery problems. (AP Photo/The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Max Faulkner) MAGS OUT; (FORT WORTH WEEKLY, 360 WEST); INTERNET OUT

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Updated: March 10, 2013 6:17AM

The grounding of the fleet of Boeing 787 Dreamliners does not appear to be nearing a quick end even though the Federal Aviation Administration approved test flights of the plane Thursday.

The primary purpose of the test flights will be to collect data about the battery and electrical system performance while the aircraft is airborne. The flights will be conducted over unpopulated areas and will be subject to a number of restrictions, including extensive pre-flight testing and inspections and in-flight monitoring in order to ensure safety, the agency said.

Word of the approved test flights followed a media briefing earlier in the day from the National Transportation Safety Board on its 787 investigation. The board said evidence suggests a single cell in a lithium-ion battery is the origin of a fire that occurred and spread onboard one of the planes in Boston last month, which led to the grounding of the fleet, but investigators still don’t know the cause of the fire.

NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman revealed assumptions made by Chicago-based Boeing about the batteries proved inaccurate, and she said those assumptions, which were accepted by the FAA, should be re-evaluated, adding an interim report on the investigation is still 30 days away.

The NTSB is looking into the special conditions the FAA required Boeing to adhere to in order to be able to use lithium-ion batteries to power the new next generation plane.

“Assumptions used to certify the battery must be reconsidered,” Hersman said.

Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Federal Aviation Administrator Michael Huerta said Thursday it’s premature to make conclusions about what changes or improvements the FAA should make going forward in the wake of issues that emerged with the Boeing 787 after certification.

According to Hersman, Boeing looked at the likelihood of a battery failure occurring and the effect that would have on the battery prior to landing certification of the 787. The aerospace giant performed various tests intended to short circuit a battery cell, and Boeing indicated those tests showed no evidence of that spreading to other cells and causing a fire, she said.

But the NTSB’s investigation of a Jan. 7 battery fire in a Japan Airlines 787 parked at Boston’s Logan International Airport shows the short-circuiting quickly spread to the battery’s other cells, creating a cascading, uncontrolled chemical reaction that sparked the fire.

Boeing also looked at whether a failure would create smoke emissions from the battery and determined the likelihood of smoke emission would occur less than once in every 10 million flight hours, but the 787 fleet had accumulated less than 100,000 flight hours, and there were two events resulting in smoke less than two weeks part, Hersman said.

In working to determine the cause of the fire, Hersman said investigators have ruled out both external short-circuiting of battery cells in the plane and mechanical impact damage. She said investigators are continuing to evaluate the battery’s design, the manufacturing process and the way the battery is charged.

The entire fleet of 50 Boeing 787s were grounded globally last month after the battery fire in Boston and after battery problems and smoke in the cockpit forced an emergency landing by an All Nippon Airways 787 in Japan, prompting the FAA and NTSB investigations and a probe by regulators in Japan.

The technologically advanced 787 is the first Boeing plane to use rechargeable lithium-ion batteries for its main electrical system. Such batteries are prone to overheating and have additional safeguards that were designed to prevent fires and contain a fire should one occur.

The NTSB update didn’t scare investors. Boeing’s shares closed up 1.5 percent Thursday at $77.43.

“They seem to be narrowing down the cause of the problem,” which appears to be the battery, said Morningstar Inc. aerospace and defense industry analyst Neal Dihora. “One would think that a battery fix would not require design changes.”

The lack of a need for such changes would be a big positive in fixing the planes that are grounded and those in production, he said.

“If the problem is in fact the battery, we should not anticipate any changes to production plans, which is a positive for Boeing profitability and keeps them on the right path to getting the cost to make a 787 down to where they can make money,” Dihora said.

Boeing’s stock has risen more than 4 percent since the plane was grounded January 16, as investors seem to be banking on a successful and relatively quick conclusion to the Dreamliner saga.

But BB&T Capital Markets analyst Carter Leake said the market seems to be looking through rose-colored glasses assuming a simple fix.

He said he thinks Hersman is “sending a shot across the bow that the original certification could be called into question.”

That could prolong the grounding and cause Boeing to scale back its production plans.

Boeing has halted deliveries of the planes until the battery issue is resolved, but the company said during its earnings conference call last week it still plans to deliver more than 60 787s this year and double production levels from five per month at the end of 2012 to seven by mid-year and 10 by the end of this year.

Contributing: AP

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