Boeing official hopeful on 787 Battery fix awaits FAA approval

Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO Ray Conner is shown at a January news conference at the Transportation Department in Washington, D.C. (AP/Susan Walsh/File)

Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO Ray Conner sounded tired as he answered questions about the 787 Dreamliner on Monday.

His company’s prize jetliner has been grounded for more than six weeks, during which time Conner’s only been getting four hours of sleep per night. A recent trip to Japan, where he met with both government officials and two of the 787’s biggest customer airlines, had left him “jetlagged.”

But drained as he might be and as uncertain as the 787 situation remains, Conner tried to strike a hopeful note during an afternoon question-and-answer session at a J.P. Morgan conference in New York.

He called Boeing’s proposed fix for the mysterious battery overheating issue “a very comprehensive solution” and said the company feels “very good” about it. However, it’s now subject to approval by the Federal Aviation Administration, which grounded the new jet model on Jan. 16.

“Once we get that, though, this will move very fast in terms of getting the airplanes back in the air,” he said. “We are prepared. We are ready to go.”

Boeing would move quickly into certification testing, Conner said, then integrate the fix into the 50 planes that have been delivered to airlines and those in production in North Charleston and Everett, Wash. “We’ve covered the waterfront so to speak in terms of all the potentials that are out there,” he said of the proposed fix, which reportedly includes increased spacing between lithium-ion cells, a better containment box around the battery and a vent. “We would not take it forward if we did not feel good about it.”

Aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia doesn’t feel as good. “I’d like to hear them talk about backup plans,” he said.

Aboulafia said Boeing’s proposed fix, which comes even as the root cause of the malfunctions remains a mystery, “seems to be a little bit at odds” with the stances taken by federal regulators. For example, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who oversees the FAA, has said the planes won’t fly again until regulators are 1,000 percent sure they’re safe.

“I think it would probably be more acceptable as an interim fix, and it might still be acceptable as a permanent fix, but it really puts the FAA and the (National Transportation Safety Board) in a corner,” he said. The NTSB has been investigating the Jan. 7 incident aboard an empty, parked 787 in Boston. Japanese investigators are looking into the Jan. 16 in-flight incident.

Conner emphasized Monday how much Boeing had poured into its proposed solution, including “about 200 of our very best engineers” and 2,000 hours of tests.

“We’ve gone through an exhaustive study and analysis on this thing,” he said.

In the wake of the 787 incidents, Boeing’s archrival Airbus switched from the volatile lithium-ion batteries to the previous standard nickel-cadmium batteries for its answer to the 787, the A350. Conner said Boeing has no plans to follow suit.

“There was no reason for us to make that kind of a switch,” he said. “Really at the end of the day we feel very comfortable with the technology as it stands.”

In the meantime, Boeing continues to make 787s at a rate of five per month between Everett and North Charleston, Conner said, and will begin assembling seven per month “pretty soon.”

“No reason not to do that, at least at this particular point in time,” he said. “Now, obviously, that could change if something were to go sideways with FAA or something like that. But we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.”

Boeing still plans to be making Dreamliners at a rate of 10 per month by the end of the year and to deliver more than 60 787s this year, in keeping with previous guidance.

While initial production of the stretch Dreamliner, the 787-9, is already underway in Everett and North Charleston, Conner admitted the battery issue has postponed the launch of the double-stretch Dreamliner, the 787-10.

“You know, clearly having the fleet down right now has slowed things down a bit,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll be able to bring that one forward soon.”

After asking about Boeing’s other jet programs, J.P. Morgan aerospace and defense analyst Joe Nadol asked, in general, how Conner’s “adventurous” first year as chief executive had gone.

“It feels like six right now,” said Conner, who took over the top post in June. “In fact, this year… Is this December?”

Reach Brendan Kearney at 937-5906 and follow him on Twitter at @kearney_brendan.