The Federal Aviation Administration said Tuesday it has approved Boeing's certification plan for the redesigned 787 battery system and will allow two Dreamliner planes to begin test flights with the revamped protections against overheating batteries and damaging fires.
The fix includes a completely redesigned battery.
It's the first step in a process of "extensive testing and analysis" aimed at getting the grounded Dreamliners back in the air. And even if all goes well in the testing, making all the planes operational again will be slow.
Philip Scruggs, executive vice president for International Lease Finance Corp., the 787's largest customer with 74 jets on order, said Tuesday that though the lessor's first Dreamliner was due in April, "it'll be the summer" before they can get it.
"There isn't a date yet," Scruggs added. "The date will depend on the ability of the battery manufacturer to ramp up production of those batteries.
"It'll depend on getting the airplanes that need the batteries as replacements — the airplanes that are in service — up in the air first, then getting the airplanes on the production line retrofitted and out the door."
FAA chief Michael Huerta and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood indicated that the testing period will be stringent.
"We are confident the plan we approved today includes all the right elements to conduct a comprehensive evaluation of the battery system redesign," Huerta said. "Today's announcement starts a testing process which will demonstrate whether the proposed fix will work as designed."
LaHood said regulators "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."
Boeing's proposed improvements include "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," according to the FAA.
The agency said its certification plan requires a series of tests that must be passed before the 787 could return to service, with specific pass/fail criteria and testing methodology. FAA engineers will be present for the testing and will be closely involved in all aspects of the process, the agency said.
Boeing Commercial Airplanes President Ray Conner described the planned measures as "a comprehensive set of solutions designed to significantly minimize the potential for battery failure while ensuring that no battery event affects the continued safe operation of the airplane."
In a Boeing statement, Conner outlined "three layers of improvements."
One involves redesign of the battery "to prevent faults from occurring and to isolate any that do."
Another involves "enhanced production, operating and testing processes" for the battery. Reports earlier this month said battery supplier GS Yuasa had been advised by outside experts to tighten inspection and reject more batteries from its production line to ensure the highest levels of quality and performance of the battery and its components.
The third level of protection is an improved system for channeling smoke and volatile liquids out of the airplane "in the unlikely event of a battery failure," Conner said. He said the "enclosure system . will keep any level of battery overheating from affecting the airplane or being noticed by passengers."
The Dreamliners have been grounded since mid-January after battery failures caused a battery fire in a jet on the ground in Boston and then a smoldering battery on a flight in Japan. The grounding has halted deliveries of new planes as well as flights by the 50 already delivered to customers.
A Boeing team led by Conner presented the company's proposed fix in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 22 to Huerta, deputy Transportation Secretary John Porcari and other FAA officials.