Boeing begins modifying 787 batteries

New York TimesApril 22, 2013 

Teams of Boeing engineers and technicians began fanning out across the globe Monday to modify the battery systems of 50 of the company’s 787 Dreamliner jets and get the grounded fleet back in the air.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration on Friday approved Boeing’s plans to install modification kits intended to reduce the risk of overheating in the planes’ lithium-ion batteries. The planes have been grounded for three months, since two of the lightweight batteries erupted in smoke and fire on separate planes in January.

A team of around 30 technicians arrived in Japan over the weekend and began work on the modifications early Monday, Larry Loftis, vice president and general manager of the 787 program, said in a telephone briefing with reporters. All Nippon Airways and Japan Air Lines are the biggest operators of the Dreamliner, with 24 of the planes between them, and were the first to fly the jets in 2011.

“We are modifying in the order in which we delivered” the planes, Loftis said, adding that Japanese regulators had also approved installation of the kits – although they have not yet formally validated the FAA’s safety certification of the modifications.

Each modification kit – which includes a new steel containment box for the battery, a new venting system, battery chargers, wiring and other associated hardware built by Boeing itself – should take about five days to install, Loftis said. Modified batteries, which include better insulation between the cells, are to be shipped separately to airlines by GS Yuasa, the Japanese maker of the 787’s original batteries.

Investigators in the U.S. and Japan have not yet identified what caused the 787’s batteries to overheat. But Boeing and the FAA have said that after more than 100,000 hours of tests on the modified system, they were satisfied that the changes should eliminate concerns that the batteries could ignite.

It was not immediately clear when – or where – the first 787s would return to the skies. Once Boeing’s technicians have made the modifications, the planes will be turned back over to the airlines, which will follow their own procedures to prepare them for passenger service.

Boeing was expected to give an update on the situation Wednesday, when it reports its first-quarter results.

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