By Bart Jansen
WASHINGTON - Boeing proposed modifications to the lithium-ion batteries in the 787 Dreamliner during a presentation Friday to the Federal Aviation Administration, in an effort to get the grounded plane back into the air.
Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO Ray Conner led a team meeting with FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, Deputy Transportation Secretary John Porcari and others who will review the proposal.
"The FAA is reviewing a Boeing proposal and will analyze it closely," the FAA said in a statement. "The safety of the flying public is our top priority, and we won't allow the 787 to return to commercial service until we're confident that any proposed solution has addressed the battery failure risks."
Boeing called it a productive meeting and said the company has been working with the FAA.
"We are encouraged by the progress being made toward resolving the issue and returning the 787 to flight for our customers and their passengers around the world," said Marc Birtel, a Boeing spokesman. "As a company, our highest priority is the safety of passengers and crew members who fly aboard our products each and every day. We are committed to taking every necessary step to assure our customers and the traveling public of the integrity of the 787, and won't hesitate in our efforts to continually improve the safety and reliability of our products."
No decisions were made or are expected before next week at the earliest. The changes are subject to approval by FAA and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. But if approved, flights could resume within weeks.
Boeing's proposal would put ceramic dividers and greater separation between the eight cells in each battery, to prevent overheating, three sources familiar with the proposal confirmed for USA TODAY. The batteries - there are two in each plane - would each get a fireproof shell to contain any possible fires, sources said. And a vent would be installed, to get smoke and toxic chemicals outside the plane, the sources said.
If FAA agrees, Boeing would have to test the changes in flight. And the crews would have to monitor the batteries more closely during flights even after approval.
Some battery experts voiced concerns about using lithium batteries in a car or plane because of the potential for overheating. The key to using the batteries is to ensure they are cooled and monitored.
Donald Sadoway, a chemistry professor and battery expert at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says approval should be expected "if they provide active cooling, temperature sensors, firewalls between cell banks to prevent spread of fire, and some evidence of stress testing to show that fire is unlikely under conditions similar to those that caused the previous fires."
The FAA and other regulators worldwide ground the fleet of 50 planes on Jan. 16, after a smoking battery forced an emergency landing that day of an All Nippon Airways flight in Japan. A fire erupted Jan. 7 in a Japan Airlines plane parked in Boston.
The Friday meeting between Boeing and FAA comes as airlines are growing impatient with delays. United Airlines, which has six Dreamliners and is the only U.S. carrier with the plane, canceled its flights through June 5.
Boeing, which halted deliveries of the plane during the battery investigation, has warned airlines that April deliveries could be delayed.
Even if the changes are approved, the cause of the battery failures remains elusive.
The National Transportation Safety Board continues to investigate the Boston fire. After tracking the origin of the fire to a cell in the auxiliary battery, investigators are searching for a cause among possible manufacturing flaws or problems with the design or charging.
The Japan Transport Safety Board announced Wednesday that the auxiliary battery from the ANA flight was improperly wired. But investigators say more analysis is required to determine why the main battery started smoking and forced the emergency landing.