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Boeing: 787 Dreamliners Could Be Back In Service In Weeks, Not Months


For the first time, Boeing has presented details of its plan to fix the batteries on its 787 jetliners. The planes are currently grounded because of battery problems. As NPR's Wendy Kaufman reports, the company expects the planes to be back in service in what it calls a matter of weeks, not months.

WENDY KAUFMAN, BYLINE: In a morning news conference in Tokyo, top Boeing executives strongly defended the 787. They suggested the seriousness of the battery problems had been overstated in the media, and they insisted the decision to use the lithium-ion battery was sound. Boeing also laid out the changes it plans to make in the battery and its housing. Here's Ray Conner, CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes.

RAY CONNER: We have proposed a comprehensive and robust set of solutions that provide three layers of improvements, and we're confident that they are the right ones.

KAUFMAN: Among other things, the battery has been redesigned with better insulation, a smaller range for charging, and a better monitoring system. Changes have been made to the charging unit as well. In addition, the housing for the battery will be enhanced, and the new case will be put inside a sealed stainless steel container more than an inch thick. Boeing's Mike Sinnett, the vice president in charge of 787 systems, said the container would vent any escaping gases directly out of the plane. That box, he said, eliminates the possibility of a fire. Reporters were skeptical.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Can you assure that the new battery design can eliminate absolutely no risk of fire at all?

MIKE SINNETT: Yes, I can. One of the aspects that I am most confident in in the enclosure design is our ability to prevent ignition and to prevent combustion.

KAUFMAN: Boeing's plan also mandates enhanced production and testing standards by the battery maker. Eric Stuve, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Washington, says the changes make sense. He adds that because we still don't know exactly what caused the battery failures, Boeing had to rethink everything.

ERIC STUVE: It would be nice to know what the cause is. But if you did know what the cause is, then you would be working to prevent that cause and you might miss some other possible causes. They are taking a comprehensive approach to say let's guard against all possible causes we can come up with.

KAUFMAN: But Donald Sadaway, a professor of materials chemistry at MIT, isn't so sure. He says while the changes go in the right direction, they don't go far enough.

DONALD SADAWAY: I would feel better if I knew that they had an active cooling system to prevent those cells from increase in temperature to the point where ultimately they ignite.

KAUFMAN: He points to just such a system on the Chevy Volt. The concepts in Boeing's redesign have already been approved by the FAA. And this week, the agency gave the company the greenlight on a detailed testing plan. The company said it's already completed some of the tests. Most are being done in the lab. Only a single test flight is being planned.

Boeing believes that barring any unanticipated problems, it can complete the tests within weeks and hopes the FAA would move quickly after that. Just how soon is the 787 likely to return to the skies? Guy Norris, a senior editor at Aviation Week says FAA approval is just one hurdle.

GUY NORRIS: You're then going to go through the business of actually installing it through the fleet. So I wouldn't be surprised if you are looking at May.

KAUFMAN: By then, Boeing's flagship jet will have been grounded for roughly four months. Wendy Kaufman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.