Thursday, February 07, 2013

Boeing Preps Redesign to Get 787 Flying Again

Updated February 6, 2013, 8:26 p.m. ET


The Wall Street Journal

Boeing Co. is  proposing a series of battery design changes that it believes would minimize the risks of fire on its 787 Dreamliners and allow the grounded jets to fly again while it continues searching for a longer-term fix, say government and industry officials briefed on the matter.

The company is looking at increasing the separation between cells in the lithium-ion batteries to reduce the potential hazards from heat or fire spreading within the batteries and adding enhanced heat-sensors, these officials said. Boeing also is considering ways to keep cells more rigid, preventing them from shifting under certain conditions and interfering with electronics.

The goal would be a new, safer battery that Boeing could propose for the 50 Dreamliners currently grounded around the world, and on future deliveries, the people said.

Any changes would require approval from U.S. and Japanese regulators now investigating two incidents last month in which the batteries burned on 787s owned by Japanese airlines. It is not yet clear whether officials would accept a long-term fix that doesn't address the root cause of those incidents. In their discussions with Boeing, Federal Aviation Administration officials have stressed that interim fixes must improve warning time when batteries malfunction and more-effectively mitigate the dangers of any part of the system going haywire, according to people familiar with the discussions.

The FAA didn't have any immediate comment. The FAA also is considering a request from Boeing to allow it to conduct test flights using its own Dreamliners and on Wednesday approved a single shuttle flight from Texas to Washington state for one plane. The agency is expected to approve the series of test flights shortly, according to people familiar with the issue.

Boeing and GS Yuasa Corp., the Japanese company that makes the batteries, declined to comment on possible design changes. A Boeing spokesman said it has "hundreds of engineering and technical experts who are working around the clock with the sole focus of resolving the issue and returning the 787 fleet to flight status. Everyone is working to get to the answer as quickly as possible and good progress is being made."

If Boeing were able to get approval for interim solutions, it would alleviate some of the uncertainty hanging over its flagship product. Boeing has staked much of its financial future on the Dreamliner, which it first delivered in late 2011 after 3½ years of costly delays and complications. The company has continued manufacturing the planes since the FAA's grounding order on Jan. 16, but it has been unable to deliver them to customers, who generally pay most of the airplane's price—which lists around $200 million—on delivery. Boeing could also owe existing and future operators penalties as long as the planes are grounded.

Technical details of potential changes to the two lithium-ion batteries on each 787 haven't yet been finished or approved by regulators, and they still need to be verified by laboratory and flight tests, officials briefed on the matter said. One person familiar with the deliberations said "discussions remain fluid" and proposed designs keep shifting.

Eight carriers around the globe with grounded 787s are receiving regular briefings from Boeing, but airline and industry officials describe varying timelines and somewhat different versions of potential design changes. According to some officials familiar with the discussions, Boeing has said it hopes to have new batteries ready to ship to airlines as early as the end of the month. Under a best-case scenario, according to one airline official, that could mean resumption of passenger flights in March.

The proposed changes would retain Boeing and GS Yuasa's underlying lithium-ion battery technology, say several industry officials. Possible changes include an enhanced covering—dubbed by some as "a containment box"—with the goal of keeping flames or chemicals inside the battery in case of overheating or other problems. In addition, Boeing has told some airline officials it is looking at ways to better protect the power packs from moisture, according to industry officials.

The Dreamliner is the first passenger jet to make such extensive use of lithium-ion batteries, which have long been known to be potentially volatile in some circumstances. Previous Boeing jets used nickel-cadmium batteries, which are comparatively bigger and heavier. Echoing the company's public statements, officials familiar with the briefings to Boeing customers say the company remains committed to using lithium-ion batteries.

Whatever the final package turns out to be, industry and government officials said the changes won't answer the most important mystery that confronts investigators: what caused batteries to start burning on two Japanese Boeing 787s in January? Despite weeks of intense probing on both sides of the Pacific, regulators and air-safety investigators have failed to identify the root cause of those malfunctions.

Asked earlier this week about whether investigators have made little progress, Norihiro Goto, chairman of the Japan Transport Safety Board, replied: "Unfortunately that may be right."

National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman on Wednesday said investigators were still "probably weeks away from being able to tell people, 'Here is what exactly happened and what needs to change.'"

"Obviously what we saw in the 787" battery that caught fire while the plane was parked in Boston on Jan. 7, she told reporters, "shows us that there are some risks that weren't mitigated, that weren't addressed." Once investigators and regulators "understand why that happened," she said, "we need to make sure that in future installations that those risks are mitigated."

Her comments indicated the safety board feels design changes to the 787's battery system are necessary.

Boeing's possible interim fixes wouldn't address the issue of what standards the FAA used in initially approving the 787 to carry passengers. Ms. Hersman said it is important to determine if the "right risk assessment" originally was done by the FAA, and whether safety standards now should be raised.

The NTSB is scheduled to release additional information about the probe on Thursday, examining government oversight of the original design and, according to some industry officials, releasing new details about the failure of redundant safety stems to prevent overheating.

—Yoshio Takahashi and Yoree Koh contributed to this article.


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