Boeing says it’s ready to fix and fly the 787
WASHINGTON — New batteries for the Boeing 787 and kits with the parts for the new battery systems are ready to be shipped immediately, the planemaker said Friday, after getting word that the grounded jet could resume flights as early as next week.
The 787s will get the fix in approximately the order they were delivered, Boeing said.
“The Boeing team is ready to help get our customers’ 787s back in the air where they belong,” said Ray Conner, who runs Boeing Co.’s commercial airplane division.
The revamped system includes additional insulation around each of the battery’s eight cells to prevent a short circuit or fire in one of the cells from spreading to the others. The new system also includes enhanced venting of smoke and gas from inside the battery to outside the plane.
Also, a strengthened box to hold the battery is an effort to ensure that if a fire were to occur, it wouldn’t escape to the rest of the plane.
The Federal Aviation Administration intends to lift the order grounding the beleaguered 787 even though the root cause of battery failures that led to a fire on one plane and smoke on another remains unknown.
Boeing has completed 20 tests of the new system, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta told Congress.
Boeing had delivered 50 planes to eight airlines in seven countries when a fire erupted in a battery aboard a Japan Airlines 787 parked at Boston’s Logan International Airport on Jan. 7. The FAA and other authorities grounded the entire fleet after a second incident nine days later led to an emergency landing by an All Nippon Airways 787 in Japan.
The grounding also halted Dreamliner deliveries from its two assembly plants in North Charleston and Everett, Wash. They were expected to resume “in the weeks ahead,” after it installs the changes on planes at those factories, Boeing said.
A Boeing South Carolina representative did not respond to an email and phone messages seeking comment Friday.
The company still expects to hit its target of delivering at least 60 787s this year, adding that the battery issue “will have no significant impact” on its financial guidance for the year. The North Charleston plant is expected to ramp up production to three planes a month by the end of 2013.
The FAA’s action directly affects United Airlines, which is the only U.S. airline with 787s in its fleet. Aviation authorities in other countries are expected to follow suit swiftly.
The 787 is Boeing’s newest and most technologically advanced plane. It is the world’s first airliner made mostly from lightweight composite materials. It also relies on electronic systems rather than hydraulic or mechanical systems to a greater degree than any other airliner.
And it is the first airliner to make extensive use of lithium ion batteries, which are lighter, recharge faster and can hold more energy than other types of batteries.
Boeing has billed the plane to its customers as 20 percent more fuel efficient than other midsized airliners. That’s a big selling point, since fuel is the biggest expense for most airlines.
The plane’s grounding on Jan. 16 marked the first time since 1979 that the FAA had ordered every plane of a particular type to stay out of the air for safety reasons.
UBS analyst David Strauss estimated last month that the 787 will cost Boeing $6 billion this year. Besides the battery problems, the plane already costs more to build than it brings in from customers.
United Airlines has six Dreamliners, plus another 44 on order. American and Delta also have ordered 787s. Boeing has orders for more than 800 of the planes from airlines around the globe.
The 787 has two identical lithium ion batteries, one of which is installed toward the front of the plane and powers cockpit electrical systems, the other toward the rear and is used to start an auxiliary power unit while the plane is on the ground, among other functions.
It was the battery toward the rear that caught fire and gushed smoke on the plane in Boston, which had recently landed after an overseas flight. It was the battery toward the front that failed on the plane in Japan.
Lithium batteries are much more likely to experience uncontrolled high temperatures that can lead to fires if they are damaged, exposed to excessive heat, overcharged or have manufacturing flaws. Despite their risks, they are increasingly attractive to aircraft makers as a way to cut weight and thus improve fuel efficiency.
The Post and Courier contributed to this report.