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FAA OKs plan to fix Boeing 787, redesigned battery to be tested

Boeing 787 Dreamliner

Boeing 787 Dreamliner

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Updated: April 14, 2013 6:19AM

Chicago-based Boeing Co.’s plan for a redesigned lithium-ion battery system for its grounded Dreamliner 787s has been approved by regulators, and the company has received the OK to conduct test flights.

The plan calls for a redesign of the internal battery components to minimize initiation of a short circuit within the battery, better insulation of the cells and the addition of a new containment and venting system, the Federation Aviation Administration said Tuesday.

“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. “Today’s announcement starts a testing process which will demonstrate whether the proposed fix will work as designed.”

Boeing’s plan is “designed to significantly minimize the potential for battery failure while ensuring that no battery event affects the continued safe operation of the airplane,” Boeing Commercial Airplanes President and Chief Executive Officer Ray Conner said in a statement after the agency’s announcement.

“First, we’ve improved design features of the battery to prevent faults from occurring and to isolate any that do,” he said. “Second, we’ve enhanced production, operating and testing processes to ensure the highest levels of quality and performance of the battery and its components. Third, in the unlikely event of a battery failure, we’ve introduced a new enclosure system that will keep any level of battery overheating from affecting the airplane or being noticed by passengers.”

Boeing said the enhanced production and testing processes include more stringent screening of battery cells prior to battery assembly, and operational improvements focus on tightening of the system’s voltage range. A key feature of the new enclosure is that it ensures that no fire can develop in the enclosure or in the battery, the company said.

Boeing submitted the plan late last month.

The FAA said it approved the plan “after thoroughly reviewing Boeing’s proposed modifications and the company’s plan to demonstrate that the system will meet FAA requirements.”

All 50 of the Dreamliner jets in service globally were grounded after a lithium-ion battery in a 787 operated by Al Nippon Airways overheated Jan. 16, forcing an emergency landing in Japan. Earlier in January, a lithium-ion battery caught fire in a Japan Airlines 787 parked in Boston.

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

The certification plan is the first step in the process to evaluate the 787’s return to flight and requires Boeing to conduct extensive testing and analysis to demonstrate compliance with the applicable safety regulations and special conditions, the FAA said.

“This comprehensive series of tests will show us whether the proposed battery improvements will work as designed,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement. “We won’t allow the plane to return to service unless we’re satisfied that the new design ensures the safety of the aircraft and its passengers.”

The FAA said it has approved limited test flights for two aircraft. The aircraft will have the prototype versions of the new containment system installed, the agency stated. The purpose of the flight tests will be to validate the aircraft instrumentation for the battery and battery enclosure testing in addition to product improvements for other systems.

The agency said it will approve the redesign only if Boeing successfully completes all required tests and analysis to demonstrate the new design complies with FAA requirements.

The FAA’s January 16, 2013 airworthiness directive, which required operators to temporarily cease 787 operations, is still in effect, and the agency is continuing its comprehensive review of the 787 design, production and manufacturing process, the FAA noted.

“Our team has been working around the clock to understand the issues and develop a solution based on extensive analysis and testing following the events that occurred in January,” Boeing Chairman, President and CEO Jim McNerney said in a statement. “Today’s approval from the FAA is a critical and welcome milestone toward getting the fleet flying again and continuing to deliver on the promise of the 787.”

The FAA made its announcement after the stock market closed. Boeing’s shares barely budged in after hours trading, edging up 0.3 percent. For the day, the stock closed up 1.5 percent after rising 2.1 percent Monday to lead the Dow. The stock rose Monday after a Boeing executive, speaking at a conference in Orlando, Fla., said strong demand is causing the company to raise production rates for commercial planes, including the 787.

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