Boeing’s troubled 787 Dreamliner could return to commercial service within weeks after the main US aviation regulator approved the commercial jet maker’s proposals to upgrade the aircraft’s batteries, giving the go-ahead for test flights.
The decision on Tuesday by the Federal Aviation Administration comes after Boeing last month proposed a solution to the problems that would improve insulation between battery cells, put the battery in a fire-resistant box and allow smoke from any overheating to vent outside the aircraft.
A person familiar with the situation said the company was seeking a return to commercial flight within three to four weeks.
All 50 787s delivered to customers have been grounded since January 16 after the second of two severe overheating incidents within 10 days in the aircraft’s unconventional lithium-ion batteries.
In the first, on January 7 in Boston, the battery on a Japan Airlines 787 caught fire shortly after the aircraft had arrived from Tokyo. In the second incident, on January 16, an All Nippon Airways 787 was forced to make an emergency landing in western Japan after a battery started emitting smoke.
However, Ray LaHood, US transportation secretary, said there would still be an extensive programme of testing of aircraft fitted with a prototype version of the proposed fix to see if it operated as designed.
“We won’t allow the plane to return to service unless we’re satisfied that the new design ensures the safety of the aircraft and its passengers,” he said.
Jim McNerney, Boeing chief executive, said staff had been working “around the clock” to understand the issues surrounding the battery and develop a solution.
“Today’s approval from the FAA is a critical and welcome milestone towards getting the fleet flying again and continuing to deliver on the promise of the 787,” he said.
Neither the FAA nor Boeing would say when the grounded aircraft might be able to return to normal commercial service. But Ray Conner, Boeing’s head of commercial aircraft, last week said that he expected a return to flight “really fast” after FAA approval of a fix.
The FAA’s grounding of the 787 fleet was its first for an entire aircraft type since 1979. The regulator’s step was the latest in a series of setbacks for the high-profile programme. The first aircraft – delivered in September 2011 – was four years late because of multiple design and production problems.
Mr Conner last week defended the company’s persistence with the lithium-ion batteries involved in the overheating incidents, which are more flammable than traditional nickel-cadmium batteries.
The FAA’s move on the 787 comes as Boeing prepares in the next few days to announce an order for 200 of its narrow-body 737 for Ryanair, the no-frills airline.
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