Friday, March 15, 2013
DJ: Boeing Says Fixes Should Get 787 Back In Service In Weeks
TOKYO--Boeing Co. executives on Friday offered a drastically faster timetable for when the grounded 787 Dreamliner will resume passenger services, cutting the period to a matter of weeks rather than months.
"It is reasonable to expect that we could be back up and going in weeks, not in months," said Mike Sinnett, head of Boeing's 787 program, at a press conference to explain the Chicago-based aircraft maker's proposed package of fixes for the batteries on its flagship jet.
Mr. Sinnett said the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration's initial approval of its certification plan marked an important step because there is "general acknowledgement that the technical direction is correct and that the steps to be taken are sufficient to resolve the issue."
He added that 75% of Boeing's test plans have been approved, while 25% of the testing "is already underway or is already completed."
The comments suggest the aircraft maker is nearing the end of a long and labor-intensive process during the two months the 787 has been grounded due to battery failures aboard two of the jets, one each operated by Japan Airlines Co. (9201.TO) and All Nippon Airways Co. (9202.TO), the 787's two biggest customers.
However, Japanese regulators kept their distance from Boeing's views on how soon the aircraft can return to service.
Boeing's expectation "has nothing to do with us," said Shigeru Takano, a director with Japan's air transport safety unit, at a briefing after Boeing's press conference. He added that the Japanese regulator isn't committed to any timetable for the aircraft's return to service.
Mr. Takano said it was difficult to offer such a timetable at present, as the FAA approved Boeing's certification plan only days ago.
Mr. Sinnett is in Tokyo along with a troop of other Boeing executives to offer the most detailed look at the company's proposed fixes. The package is extensive, touching on nearly every part of the battery, from production checks at the Kyoto-based battery manufacturer, GS Yuasa Corp. (6674.TO), to a redesign of the battery's interior spacing, adjustments to the charging unit, and encasing the battery a fire-proof steel container.
Mr. Sinnett described the steel encasing--just 0.3 centimeters thick--as the most significant change "from a confidence standpoint," because it would eliminate the possibility of combustion if battery cells fail in the future.
"That's the number-one job of this enclosure. It eliminates the possibility of fire," he said, adding that the encasing was recommended by an industry committee looking at general practices related to lithium-ion batteries since Boeing launched the 787.
Boeing said that while the root cause of the two battery burning incidents in January is still unknown, the extensive changes address 80 factors identified as possibly having led to the failure of the batteries.
The company said the changes reflect over 200,000 hours put in by Boeing engineers and by outside experts from the automobile industry, government and the academic world.
Beyond describing the proposed fixes, Boeing used the press conference to rebut what it says are misperceptions about the events that led to the flagship jet's two-month-long global grounding.
U.S. investigators have described one of the incidents as a "thermal runaway"--a phenomenon where an ever-increasing heating process causes the battery to ignite.
Boeing insists that didn't happen. "I'd like to make one clarification if I could," said Mr. Sinnett. "Thermal runaway is defined in many different ways. The definition of a thermal runaway depends on the perspective of the observer."
In Boeing's view, a thermal runaway didn't occur in either of the burned battery incidents on the two 787s operated by the Japanese carriers.
The company reiterated its support for the safety of lithium-ion batteries. Discussing the failures that resulted in temperatures high enough to melt internal cells and other components on the two jets, Mr. Sinnett said the events never posed a major fire hazard.
In both instances, he said, the aircraft's redundant safety systems "responded exactly as we had designed and intended," and "the airplane was not at risk."
Aviation safety experts typically view any aircraft fire--regardless of size or origin--as a major safety risk.
Mr. Sinnett praised the 787 for racking up reliability data "as good or better" than Boeing's widely used 777 jets before the newer model came under a cloud and stopped flying two months ago.
Mr. Sinnett's boss, Raymond Conner, chief executive of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, summed up Boeing's predicament by saying returning the Dreamliner to commercial flight could take longer than currently anticipated because the timing is "completely dependent on the testing" that still needs to be carried out to satisfy regulators.