Teams of Boeing engineers and technicians began fanning out across the globe Monday to modify the battery systems of 50 of the company’s 787 Dreamliner jets and get the grounded fleet back in the air.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration on Friday approved Boeing’s plans to install modification kits intended to reduce the risk of overheating in the planes’ lithium-ion batteries. The planes have been grounded for three months, since two of the light-weight batteries erupted in smoke and fire on separate planes in January.
A team of around 30 technicians arrived in Japan over the weekend and began work on the modifications early Monday, Larry Loftis, vice president and general manager of the 787 program, said in a telephone briefing with reporters. All Nippon Airways and Japan Air Lines are the biggest operators of the Dreamliner, with 24 of the planes between them, and were the first to fly the jets in 2011.
“We are modifying in the order in which we delivered” the planes, Mr. Loftis said, adding that Japanese regulators had also approved installation of the kits — although they have not yet formally validated the F.A.A.’s safety certification of the modifications.
Each modification kit — which includes a new steel containment box for the battery, a new venting system, battery chargers, wiring and other associated hardware built by Boeing itself — should take about five days to install, Mr. Loftis said. Modified batteries, which include better insulation between the cells, are to be shipped separately to airlines by GS Yuasa, the Japanese maker of the 787’s original batteries.
Six other carriers have 787s in their fleets: Air India, Ethiopian Airlines, LAN Airlines of Chile, LOT of Poland, Qatar Airways and United Airlines of the United States. Orders for about 800 additional 787s are in the pipeline.
Boeing said it would deploy a total of around 300 technicians to nine countries in the coming weeks and months to retrofit the fleet of 787s.
“We will be working 24 hours a day with our crews and going absolutely all out to support our customers,” Mr. Loftis said.
Investigators in the United States and Japan have not yet identified what caused the 787’s batteries to overheat. But Boeing and the F.A.A. have said that after more than 100,000 hours of tests on the modified system, they were satisfied that the changes should eliminate concerns that the batteries could ignite.
Given the size of the Japanese 787 fleet — half of all the Dreamliners that have been delivered — as well as the large role that Japanese suppliers have played in building the plane — 35 percent of all its components, including its wings — Boeing has a strong incentive to get the planes flying there as soon as possible.
The Japanese transportation minister, Akihiro Ota, said Friday that regulators there were in the final stages of evaluating the safety of the battery system changes. Analysts said Japanese regulators could require a few additional safeguards before approving the modified planes for flight.
Mr. Loftis of Boeing said he could not predict how long it might take to obtain approvals by regulators in Japan and elsewhere. The F.A.A. has primary authority to regulate and certify the safety of Boeing aircraft and, typically, its decisions are validated by other countries with few changes.
“I am not expecting anything out of the ordinary” in the recertification of the 787 by foreign regulators, Mr. Loftis said. “They have the documentation and the analysis we have done. I would expect them to grant their approvals in the near future.”
It was not immediately clear when — or where — the first 787s would return to the skies. Once Boeing’s technicians have made the modifications, the planes will be turned back over to the airlines, which will follow their own procedures to prepare them for passenger service.
For example, ANA — which operates 17 Dreamliners — is planning to make 100 to 200 test flights next month before resuming passenger service on the 787 in June, Reuters reported last week.
Analysts predicted that it would be months before the whole 787 fleet was back in the air, but said it would probably not be long before the first passenger flights resume.
“It would be unwise to believe that the process of rectification will be fully complete before the end of the summer,” said Howard Wheeldon, an independent investment strategist in London, adding, “It seems to me that we can expect the first 787 to resume flying in airline service within a matter of weeks.”
With the F.A.A.’s approval of the battery modifications, Boeing said it was also beginning discussions with airlines about rescheduling deliveries of new jets on order. The company’s assembly lines have continued to build planes over the past three months and Boeing has more than a dozen finished planes parked in hangars near its factories in Washington state and South Carolina.
Before the battery incidents in January, Boeing had hoped to double its production of 787s to 10 per month by the end of this year, from 5 per month currently. Mr. Loftis declined to say Monday when Boeing would be in a position to begin ramping up that rate or what the financial impact of the grounding and the modifications to the 787 fleet would be.
Boeing was expected to give an update on the situation Wednesday, when it reports its first-quarter results.
By NICOLA CLARK
Published: April 22, 2013 New York Times