Boeing Dreamliner Battery Fix May Be at Hand

The FAA yesterday gave Boeing the go-ahead to begin tests of new 787 batteries and supporting components that could lead to the problem-plagued plane's receiving approval to resume commercial flights. Fifty 787s were grounded in January, following a series of battery fires and other issues.

The agency will closely monitor testing of the new batteries, and there's no guarantee that the results will pass muster quickly. But it strongly suggests that the FAA believes that Boeing has successfully identified the root cause of the battery fires and has developed a workable solution to the problem.

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The proposed fix incorporates a combination of measures aimed at both prevention and containment.

On the prevention side, the newly designed batteries will feature more insulation between the batteries' cells to prevent overheating.

And on the containment side, the batteries will be housed in more robust cases that Boeing claims "eliminates any potential for fire and allows the airplane to safely continue on to its destination." The new cases will also use titanium hoses to route any hazardous gases outside the plane.

In a best-case scenario, in which the planned tests in the lab and inflight are all successful, the new batteries could be recertified by the FAA within about a month, sources say. Add in another few weeks to retrofit the grounded planes, and the 787s could be back in operation in early- to mid-May.

Dreamliner Issues and Responses

  • On March 9, Boeing operated an FAA-sanctioned 787 test flight, during which special equipment was used to monitor and record the batteries' performance. The flight was described as "uneventful."
  • On February 9 and 11, Boeing completed two test flights, using one of six 787 test planes specially fitted with electronic tools to monitor and diagnose battery-related issues. Both flights were "uneventful."
  • On January 16, the FAA ordered all U.S. Dreamliners grounded until the safety issued could be sorted out. The move prompted a worldwide grounding.
  • On January 15, All Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines suspended all 787 flights following a battery malfunction that resulted in an emergency landing.
  • At least partly in response to the service suspensions by Japanese carriers, Qatar Airways canceled a scheduled 787 flight from London to Doha.
  • On January 13, a fuel leak was discovered on a Japan Airlines 787 at Tokyo's Narita Airport.
  • On January 11, the FAA announced that it would subject the 787 Dreamliner to an unusual post-launch "review."
  • On January 7, a fire broke out on a Japan Airlines 787 in Boston.
  • A fire similar to the one in Boston had been reported during the 787's testing phase in 2010.
  • In December, an electrical malfunction forced a United Airlines 787 to make an emergency landing.
  • Later that same month, United reported that the same issue had been discovered on a second Dreamliner.
  • Also in December, Qatar Airlines grounded one of its 787s because of electrical issues.
  • On December 5, the FAA ordered inspections of potential fuel-line leaks on all 787s.

About the 787 Dreamliner

The Dreamliner is Boeing's most advanced airliner, featuring such cutting-edge technology as lithium-ion batteries and a composite-plastic body.

The first 787 was received by ANA in September 2011, and since then 50 787s have been delivered to eight airline customers, including United.

The company has taken orders for 844 Dreamliners, and Boeing hopes to sell as many as 5,000 during the lifetime of the plane.

Reader Reality Check

Are the 787's problems of concern to you? Would you fly on one anyway?

This article originally appeared on FrequentFlier.com.

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