* Battery certification process one-third complete-Boeing
* New battery has steel case, power pack improvements
* Boeing still faces rigorous testing before any restarts
* Japan says too early to estimate when flights can resume
By Tim Kelly and Mari Saito and Alwyn Scott
TOKYO/NEW YORK, March 15 Boeing Co said
Friday its 787 Dreamliner jets could be airborne within weeks
using a new battery system that includes safeguards against
overheating, a prediction that drew scepticism from some
regulators and industry experts.
Japanese regulators immediately warned that the timetable
was impossible to predict, in part because investigators still
do not know what had caused lithium-ion batteries to overheat on
"At this time we are not yet in a position to say when
flights will restart," said Shigeru Takano, the air transport
safety director at Japan's Civil Aviation Board (CAB), which
will assess and approve Boeing's proposed fix.
Boeing's confident assertion marked a shift from the May or
June dates expected by airlines, and appeared to pressure
regulators to quickly approve the new battery safeguards.
Industry sources said U.S. regulators have signalled they expect
a lengthy testing schedule sufficient to ensure the refitted,
carbon-composite plane is safe.
Boeing's timetable also put the company at risk of missing a
deadline if approval takes longer than expected, adding to a
history of missed deadlines that has bedevilled the Dreamliner.
Regulators grounded Dreamliners worldwide in January after a
battery caught fire on a Japan Airlines Co 787 jet at
Boston's Logan airport and a battery melted on an All Nippon
Airways Co flight in Japan.
On Tuesday, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)
approved Boeing's plan to test its new battery system for
certification. The agency had no comment on Boeing's new
timetable on Friday.
In explaining its optimism, Boeing said it had finished
three tests of the new battery system and was performing three
more this week, all in cooperation with the FAA, allowing it to
predict the plane would be back in the air in weeks, not months.
HURDLES TO CLEAR
"We should be able to finish those tests in the next week or
two," Ron Hinderberger, vice president of 787-8 engineering for
Boeing Commercial Airplanes, told a U.S. press conference on
Friday. Once the tests are finished, it will be up to the FAA to
approve the process, Hinderberger added.
To meet regulators' standards and ensure safety, Boeing said
it will encase the redesigned battery in a steel box, pack it
with added insulation, heat-resistant material and spacers, and
provide drainage holes to remove moisture and vent any gases
from overheating directly outside the aircraft.
"If we look at the normal process and the way in which we
work with the FAA, and we look at the testing that's ahead of
us, it is reasonable to expect we could be back up and going in
weeks, not months," the 787's chief engineer, Mike Sinnett, said
at an earlier briefing in Tokyo.
But the CAB, the FAA's counterpart in Japan, dismissed
Sinnett's prediction, saying it was too early to predict when
787 operations could resume, since regulators in the United
States and Japan are still investigating. Takano, the air
transport safety director at the CAB, said Sinnett's comment on
the battery probe was "inappropriate."
A transport ministry source, who declined to be identified
because he was not authorized to talk to the media, told Reuters
it was possible the 787 will fly again in "several weeks" but
cautioned that regulators will take as much time as they need to
assess the battery fix.
Once regulators approve the work, installing the new power
packs and adding a vent will take about a week per plane,
Boeing's vice president in charge of 787 services, Mike Fleming,
said after the briefing in Tokyo.
Beyond the testing regimen, Boeing also faces public
hearings in April on the safety of its batteries, called by the
U.S. National Transportation Safety Board.
The agency is investigating the cause of the battery
failures and the original process used to certify the battery as
safe, and is expected to make recommendations. It is unclear how
long the NTSB investigation will last.
And some investigation details remain in dispute. Boeing
said Friday, for example, that the NTSB had ruled out fire
erupting inside the metal battery container in the Boston
incident, and that flames only occurred outside the box. NTSB
spokesman Peter Knudson said it was too early in the
investigation to rule out fire inside the box.
"It will be fascinating to see if they dial back a few of
their recent comments," said Richard Aboulafia, an industry
analyst at Teal Group in Virginia. "(FAA Administrator Michael)
Huerta has been implying a long road with a lot of testing
Some experts said the NTSB may be surprised by Boeing's
aggressive timetable. "I don't think they're going to be
overjoyed," said John Goglia, a former NTSB board member.
Testing problems could delay the 787's return to the skies,
but barring that or other problems, flights could resume in
April, he said. "The only risk I can see is if they have another
event while testing or early on in the return to flight."
Though investigators may never uncover the root cause of
those failures, that has not stopped Boeing from addressing
possible causes, Sinnett said.
"We looked at everything that could impact a battery and set
a broad set of solutions," Sinnett said, suggesting this
approach was more rigorous than focusing on a single cause.
The aircraft maker will also bolster quality control at
battery component makers GS Yuasa and Thales Sa
and install a new charger that would keep voltage
within a tighter range to guard against possible overheating.
"I would gladly have my family, my wife and my children, fly
on this airplane," Sinnett said.
The refitting work will be done on-site, rather than at
Boeing's assembly plants in the United States. The aircraft
maker does not have the capacity to work on all 50 Dreamliners
at the same time and will fix them in the order they were
delivered, Boeing vice president Fleming said.
Japan is Boeing's biggest customer for the fuel-efficient
aircraft, which has a list price of $207 million. JAL and ANA
combined account for almost half the global Dreamliner fleet.
Boeing shares rose $1.47 to $86.09 in mid-day trading on
Investors expect little impact on operations as the carriers
use other aircraft to limit cancellations, with Boeing also
likely seen compensating the carriers for losses.