Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner is getting ready to return to the skies. The FAA has approved a plan which will allow the manufacturer to test proposed fixes to the lithium-ion batteries which caused two fires and resulted in the planes being grounded in January. The new certification plan is extensive and will take some time, but both Boeing and the FAA appear confident that the new design and test plan should see the aircraft return to service later this year.
Boeing has proposed a redesign of the battery systems, including more insulation and better venting to help reduce the chance of a short-circuit happening. There will also be a more robust containment system installed should the battery fail. Testing of these systems will begin with two aircraft in the immediate future. It is possible that additional test aircraft could be added if the initial testing is successful.
FAA Administrator Michael P. Huerta expressed optimism related to the new testing plan, "We are confident the plan we approved today includes all the right elements to conduct a comprehensive evaluation of the battery system redesign. Today’s announcement starts a testing process which will demonstrate whether the proposed fix will work as designed."
There are some 20-odd tests which the revised systems will need to pass per the agreed upon plan. These tests include strict metrics for evaluating the success and will require real-world proof of functionality rather than dependence on theoretical performance. The previous guidelines for the batteries included the estimates from Boeing that the batteries would fail, on average, once in every 10 million flight hours. The two failures came with fewer than 52,000 hours clocked across the 50 planes delivered to airlines.
A return to passenger service might come as early as the end of April or it could take much longer, depending on the performance in these early tests. It is also not clear if the planes will be immediately cleared for service on the long-haul, overwater routes they are designed to fly or if there will be limits to the acceptable Dreamliner routes. The approval of the test plan is the first step in the Dreamliner’s return to flight. It will be neither an easy nor a quick return, but the groundwork has now been laid out.
Photo credit: Courtesy of Boeing