Boeing 787 Test Flight Awaits FAA Greenlight

Boeing Co. (NYSE:BA) performed a two hour test flight Friday of its grounded 787 commercial jet. The planes have been grounded since January by the FAA and a number of national aviation authorities following a series of incidents that resulted in the planes being deemed unsafe to fly passengers until modifications were made. The majority of the incidents involved the 787′s lithium-ion batteries. A battery fire erupted in a 787 parked at a Boston airport on January 7th, 2013. Then, nine days later, a 787 made an emergency landing in Japan after a battery pack started smoking. This lead to the grounding of all 787s worldwide, according to the New York Times.

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Boeing 787 Jet on FireSince the problems were discovered in the 787′s lithium-ion battery packs and the batteries’ charging equipment, Boeing has been hard at work revising them so that the planes can fly again. The 787 uses technology and manufacturing processes not used previously in commercial jets and while Boeing sees the plane as the future of commercial aviation, the delivery of 787s to airlines has been repeatedly delayed. Flaws in the manufacturing process were discovered in 2009, leading to delays in the plane’s first test flight, according to the Wichita Business Journal. The battery problem has only been the latest hiccup in Boeing’s 787 program.

After the grounding of all 787s, the FAA quickly approved more than 20 types of battery tests for Boeing to perform to certify that its redesigned lithium-ion battery packs are safe. Federal investigators found that a battery cell short-circuited on the 787 parked in Boston and the short spread to the rest of the cells in the battery pack, leading to the fire. To improve on the flawed battery pack design the FAA originally approved, the cells in each battery pack are more insulated from each other and the battery casing than before. The battery charger has also been redesigned to charge the batteries more slowly. (One of the advantages of lithium-ion batteries over the lead-acid batteries that are normally used in planes is that lithium-ion batteries charge faster.) A new battery ventilation system has also been installed to keep the batteries cool and prevent smoke from building up in the cabin in case a fire does break out.

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The 787 only uses its batteries to start the plane and provide power on the ground before taking off. A battery failure while the plane is in the air would not affect the plane’s flight but a potential in-air fire is extremely dangerous. The data from Friday’s test flight will be delivered to the FAA and then Boeing will have to wait from for the agency’s green light on resuming commercial 787 flights. However, convincing passengers to fly on 787s again after the grounding might be more difficult than getting the FAA to lift the flight restriction.

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