Boeing to Propose 787 Battery Fixes to FAA
02/20/2013| 04:16pm US/Eastern
Boeing Co. (>> The Boeing Company) on Friday is expected to begin the formal process of persuading U.S. aviation regulators to approve temporary battery fixes on the company's 787 jets, intended to allow the planes back in the air after being grounded since the middle of January, according to people familiar with the issue.
Senior Boeing executives are scheduled to meet with top officials from the Federal Aviation Administration in Washington, D.C., to discuss a 10-point package that includes installing a fireproof container around the plane's lithium ion batteries, according to these people. The proposal ranges from short-term measures to mitigate fire hazards--such as enhanced cockpit checklists and changes to vent fumes outside the plane--to a long-term battery redesign based on measuring temperature and voltage changes of individual cells.
The proposed fix reflects Boeing's push to put the 787 safely back into the air even though investigators in the U.S. and Japan have so far failed to trace the root cause of battery problems that led the FAA to ground the jets. The discussions are expected to take some time, these people said, with FAA officials likely to ask Boeing for some revisions and to demonstrate the effectiveness of its proposal.
Ray Conner, head of Boeing's commercial airplanes unit, is expected to head the company's delegation meeting with FAA officials, including agency chief Michael Huerta, according to these people.
An FAA spokeswoman declined to comment. Boeing spokesman Marc Birtel declined to comment, saying only that: "We have been in close communication with the regulatory and investigative authorities since the 787 issue arose. We do not comment publicly on our conversations with the regulatory and investigative authorities."
Boeing has halted new 787 deliveries but continues to produce the jet, parking completed aircraft at its increasingly congested facilities near Seattle and in Charleston, S.C.
The company wants to secure approval to have the 787 restart commercial operations while the probe continues into the twin incidents that saw a battery catch fire on one 787 parked at Boston airport, while another was forced to make an emergency landing after its battery started smoldering.
The planned meeting with U.S. safety chiefs comes as Japanese investigators expanded their probe, revealing on Wednesday that they had found unusual wiring around the auxiliary power unit battery following the failure of the main battery during a domestic All Nippon Airways Co. flight on Jan. 16.
"We have been investigating what happened, but as we haven't got to a point where we can say why it happened yet, we can't say we've made progress," said Norihiro Goto, chairman of the Japan Transportation Safety Board.
Boeing declined to comment on the investigations and any specific conversations with regulators.
The grounding has hit 50 jets operated by eight carriers, though airlines expecting their first deliveries are also having to make contingency plans. LOT Polish Airlines, which has two 787s, has said it doesn't expect them to fly again until October.
United Continental Holdings Inc. (>> UNID CONT), parent company of United Airlines, said it expects its six 787s will remain grounded until April and has canceled all Dreamliner flights through March.
Some airlines hit by the grounding of the Dreamliner are looking to rent alternative jets, though the head of one of the world's largest aircraft leasing companies said their options are limited.
Aengus Kelly, chief executive of AerCap Holdings NV (>> AerCap Holdings N.V.), said a tight market for jets such as the Boeing 767 or the larger Airbus A330 meant most leasing companies didn't have spare planes available for carriers looking to fill the gap left by the unavailability of current and future 787 deliveries.
"They have to go into the wet-leasing market," said Mr. Kelly, referring to the practice of renting aircraft for a short period, complete with crews.
Boeing is also wrestling with the threat of industrial action by key staff after unionized technical workers rejected a contract offer late Tuesday and authorized a strike. The technical staff broke ranks with a larger contingent of engineers who voted in favor of a new four-year deal.
Boeing has said it has made contingency plans to help counter the impact of any industrial action, including using management to assume some duties.
--Yoree Koh and Doug Cameron contributed to this article.
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