787 Batteries May Be Fixable, But Planes Won't Get Off The Ground Anytime Soon

Boeing's Dreamliner 787s remain grounded. And neither investigators nor Boeing can say exactly what caused a battery fire on a Japan Airlines jet. Nevertheless, Boeing thinks it has a fix, and while the Federal Aviation Administration is poised to allow Boeing to begin proving the redesign will be effective, the planes won't be back in service anytime soon.

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For Boeing, it's been seven long weeks since the FAA and regulators worldwide grounded the company's new Dreamliner jet, the 787. Batteries on two of the planes severely overheated and, in one case, caught fire. Boeing says it has a fix for the problem and next week government regulators are expected to approve the company's plan to show the battery is safe. But as NPR's Wendy Kaufman reports, the planes won't be back in commercial service anytime soon.

WENDY KAUFMAN, BYLINE: National Transportation Safety Board investigators concluded weeks ago that a short circuit inside the battery of the Japan Airlines jet started the fire. But neither they nor Boeing have been able to figure out the precise sequence of events or the root cause of the blaze. That fact was underscored in documents released today by the NTSB. Nevertheless, the head of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, Ray Conner, insists the redesigned battery is safe.

RAY CONNER: We feel very good about the fix. I think that we have - we've covered the waterfront, so to speak, in terms of all the potentials that are out there. And we would not go forward unless we felt like we had it nailed, and I think we do.

KAUFMAN: The battery fix Conner was talking about at a JPMorgan conference on Monday includes a number of things: reducing the risk of a battery cell overheating and reducing the possibility that a problem in one cell would spread to another. More monitoring would be added and the battery would be enclosed in a fireproof box. Conner said all that's needed now is the green light from the FAA.

CONNER: Once we get that, though, this will move really fast in terms of being able to get the airplanes back into the air. We are prepared. We're ready to go.

KAUFMAN: For Boeing, getting approval for its plan to begin conducting specific tests - something that's expected next week - would be a big step in the right direction. But the company won't be able to start test flights until the FAA has seen enough solid evidence from the lab and ground tests. Neither the government nor the company are providing details. But aviation consultant John McGraw, who recently retired from the FAA, says regulators will be cautious.

JOHN MCGRAW: They're going to be methodical and thorough in their review and in the decisions they make related to this design. So there will be no rushing forward. It's going to take time.

KAUFMAN: And this time around, Boeing's burden of proof in showing the batteries are essentially failsafe will be high. Both engineering and political factors are at work here. The FAA is under intense scrutiny by critics who say it relied far too much on Boeing's own data when it approved the batteries in the first place.

Indeed, the FAA's boss, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, has been pushing his regulators to be very cautious and pushing them to be, perhaps, more rigorous than they otherwise would have been. But aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia wonders if LaHood hasn't set an impossible standard.

RICHARD ABOULAFIA: It's tough to dial back rhetoric.

KAUFMAN: Back in January when LaHood grounded the 787, he publicly pledged that the plane wouldn't be allowed to carry passengers until investigators determined the precise cause of the overheating batteries and regulators felt 1,000 percent sure of the plane's safety. Aboulafia says...

ABOULAFIA: When you head down the direction of 1,000 percent safe, you know, it doesn't necessary help to talk in terms like that, but unfortunately its also tough to escape from it.

KAUFMAN: Because the specific cause of the fire may never be known, regulators will have to rely on the best available evidence and then convince LaHood and the flying public that the battery is ready for commercial flights. It's impossible to know how long this whole process will take. Estimates range from several weeks to many months. But Boeing's challenges won't end there. Confidence in the 787 has been shattered and restoring it won't be easy. Wendy Kaufman, NPR News.

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