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FAA: Boeing fix won’t end 787 grounding fast

Bloomberg, Kyodo

Boeing Co.’s proposal to get the 787 Dreamliner back in the skies, while comprehensive, will require extensive testing even if approved before regulators end the plane’s grounding, the top U.S. aviation official said.

Federal Aviation Administrator Michael Huerta on Wednesday wouldn’t speculate when the agency might lift its Jan. 16 order effectively grounding Boeing’s new model worldwide. Aviation agencies in other countries followed the FAA’s lead.

“Once we approve a plan, then we have to go through the process of actually implementing the plan, which would involve a great deal of testing, a great deal of further analysis and re-engineering before those planes will be flying again,” he said during testimony at a U.S. House hearing.

Huerta, in the most detailed comments to date on Boeing’s presentation Feb. 22, told reporters after the hearing that it “looks to be a very comprehensive proposal” featuring multiple alterations designed to address every possible cause of battery incidents that grounded the plane.

The FAA’s technical staff is evaluating Boeing’s proposal and will send Huerta a report “probably sometime next week,” he said. If the agency approves the company’s plan, tests will have to prove the solutions will work, Huerta said.

Huerta said the Boeing proposal contains three general safety layers: attempting to ensure none of the eight individual cells within a battery overheats, preventing a failed cell from harming adjacent cells, and protecting the plane from damage if all the cells burn.

Marc Birtel, a Boeing spokesman, declined comment about the plan.

The proposed solution is a “permanent” one, Ray Conner, Boeing’s head of commercial airplanes, told reporters in Tokyo on Thursday. Conner met with transport minister Akihiro Ota and explained Boeing’s plan to fix the volatile lithium-ion battery used in its 787 Dreamliner, after one operated by All Nippon Airways Co. was forced to make an emergency landing in January.

Boeing has no dispute with battery maker GS Yuasa Corp. and will keep using the Kyoto-based company’s lithium-ion cells in the 787, Conner said.

“It’s not an interim solution, this is a permanent solution,” Conner said. “We see nothing in the technology that would tell us that it’s not the appropriate thing to do. The solution set that we’ve put in place provides three layers of protection.”

GS Yuasa told FAA officials the changes should go beyond Boeing’s proposal, to include protections that ensure proper power levels go to the batteries, said two government officials who asked not to be named because they weren’t authorized to speak about Yuasa’s activities.

The 787′s original design included four separate circuits to ensure the plane’s power system wouldn’t damage the batteries, Birtel said in a statement.

Boeing is offering its fixes before safety investigators determine what caused the battery incidents. The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board found a short circuit in one battery cell on a Japan Airlines Co. 787 that caught fire Jan. 7 in Boston, Chairman Debbie Hersman has said.

Boeing engineers attempted to determine every possible cause for that incident and one aboard an ANA flight in Japan, Huerta said. The firm’s proposal then included layers of protection to prevent each of the potential causes, he said.

There is precedent for fixing a safety issue without knowing what caused an accident or incident, he said. The agency has ordered dozens of fixes to wiring and fuel tanks following the July 17, 1996, explosion that downed Trans World Airlines Inc. Flight 800, killing 230 people.

While the NTSB never established why that Boeing 747′s tank exploded, the FAA went ahead with measures to ensure sparks wouldn’t ignite fuel on aircraft.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, speaking to reporters at an American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials conference on Wednesday, said he’s been briefed on Boeing’s battery proposal. The FAA is reviewing it in detail before deciding whether it’s “the right plan,” LaHood said.

“We’re going to take that plan and make sure that the batteries are safe,” LaHood said. “Then we’ll get to the point of deciding whether we’re going to allow the planes to fly or not.”