Boeing’s Battery Troubles May End Very Soon

Following a successful test flight with its new and improved battery system, Boeing (NYSE:BA) has said that the 787 Dreamliner is ready for Phase II of the battery saga, which has kept its in-service fleet of 50 of the aircraft on the ground since two battery fires in January.

Engineers said the test flight, which happened on Monday, went according to plan. The crew of six on board the plane consisted of two pilots, two instrumentation engineers, a systems operator, and a flight analyst. The successful first test flight means that Boeing can now perform additional flights to gather data for the Federal Aviation Administration, the Chicago Tribune reported. The first flight lasted about two hours.

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“During the functional check flight (on Monday), crews cycled the landing gear and operated all the backup systems, in addition to performing electrical system checks from the flight profile,” Boeing spokesman Marc Birtel said in a statement. ”More than 600 of these functional check flights were completed in 2012 across Boeing commercial airplane programs,” he added.

Two instances in January forced the FAA to ground the aircraft until the battery situation was resolved. In one instance, the batteries aboard a parked plane in Boston caught fire. In the other, a plane owned by a Japanese carrier was forced to make an emergency landing in Japan as a result of overheating battery cells.

Getting the planes back in the air is a top priority for Boeing, which is losing as much as $50 million per week while the planes are grounded. Airlines in Japan, the United States, the Middle East, Europe, and Africa that bought the fuel-efficient jet but are barred from using those planes are also suffering. Boeing is still building 787s, but cannot deliver them to customers during the grounding, according to the Tribune.

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Although Boeing officials have said the jet could be back in service by May 1 or earlier, Oliver McGee, an aerospace and mechanical engineer who was a deputy assistant secretary of transportation under President Bill Clinton, said he was skeptical that regulators would allow service to resume so soon.

“Take whatever date is agreed upon and add three to six months to it,” McGee told Reuters. “I don’t think that you’re going to see any type of quick fix or compromising on the FAA side.” He added that the trauma of the Columbia and Challenger shuttle disasters would make federal officials reluctant to sign off on the new battery system until they were absolutely sure it would work as Boeing promised.

The improved system includes a steel box designed to contain a battery explosion and prevent fire, as well as a tube to vent fumes and heat out of the aircraft. Former U.S. National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Mark Rosenker said Boeing has invested hundreds of thousands of engineering hours to develop the improved battery system.

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“They don’t want to put an airplane up that they’re going to have to deal with again,” he told Reuters. “They want this thing resolved. They want to do it in an efficient, appropriate, scientific, analytic way. It is not in their best interests to rush a system.”

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