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Boeing Believes It Has Safety Fix For 787s


Let's talk about another meeting happening today. Senior officials from Boeing are sitting down with the head of the Federal Aviation Administration. Boeing wants its 787 Dreamliner fleet back in service. It's been grounded for more than a month. Neither Boeing nor safety investigators have discovered exactly what caused two 787 batteries to overheat and in one case catch fire last month. But, Boeing believes, it can mitigate any future risk with a series of fixes.

As NPR's Wendy Kaufman reports, the company is formally presenting those remedies today.

WENDY KAUFMAN, BYLINE: Boeing is expected to propose a number of changes to the batteries, including ones that would make it less likely that the individual battery cells would overheat. The battery would be enclosed in a new fireproof box and additional monitoring of the batteries would be added as well.

Eric Stuve, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Washington, says the changes...

ERIC STUVE: Make complete sense.

KAUFMAN: Consider, for example, the new container that would surround the battery.

STUVE: If you have a battery or anything with this tendency to catch on fire or overheat, enclosing that is a really good thing to do.

KAUFMAN: The job of selling these design changes to the FAA is now in the hands of Ray Conner, the president and CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes. He'll have to convince the FAA that this time around the aerospace company knows what its talking about.

When Boeing was seeking approval for its new jet, it made certain assumptions about the safety of the batteries and the FAA relied on them. But those assumptions have proven to be wrong.

Aviation consultant John McGraw, who recently retired from the FAA, says Boeing will also have to convince regulators that if they sign off on the battery, their decision will be accepted by the public.

JOHN MCGRAW: You know, once you take the step of grounding an airplane, it's very, very difficult to get an entire fleet of airplanes back up again; it becomes much more of a perception issue and much less of a technical issue.

KAUFMAN: And given the history of the lithium ion batteries and the FAA's approval of them in spite of the well-known risk of fires, the public and Congress may well be skeptical.

Again, John McGraw.

MCGRAW: It does sort of put Boeing and the FAA in a tight corner where they have to be very conservative, but be realistic in that new technologies often have issues that are unanticipated and there are technical solutions that will let you you're your way through that.

KAUFMAN: Neither Boeing nor the FAA had any comment in advance of the meeting.

No one expects the Federal Aviation Administration to give Boeing and its 787 an immediate thumbs up to begin commercial flights. But it seems likely that regulators will allow Boeing to begin flight tests with the new batteries soon.

KEN HERBERT: Getting the green light from the FAA is very important from a confidence standpoint for airlines and investors to know that in fact Boeing has a solution and that they've got a plan to attack this problem.

KAUFMAN: Ken Herbert is an industry analyst with Imperial Capital.

HERBERT: You don't want this to linger on longer than it has too and I think they're ready now for Boeing to push this forward.

KAUFMAN: As for the flight tests themselves, Mary Schiavo, a former inspector general of the Department of Transportation, believes that the FAA will require more testing of the batteries than was done in the past, and may well impose tighter safety standards.

MARY SCHIAVO: Boeing needs to get those planes in the air, with their suggested modifications and get those test hours, because until they get those successful test hours, they can't get final approval.

KAUFMAN: Even under the best case scenario, the 787s probably won't return to the skies until April at the very earliest.

Meanwhile, the financial cost to Boeing for the battery problems continues to mount. Analyst Ken Herbert believes those costs could ultimately top $1 billion.

Wendy Kaufman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Wendy Kaufman