United Airlines eyes restart to Boeing 787 service as Dreamliner flight tests begin

March 26, 2013


United 787 small United Airlines eyes restart to Boeing 787 service as Dreamliner flight tests beginOutfitted with its new battery safety system in place, a Boeing 787 Dreamliner took off yesterday on a two hour and nine minute test flight that departed the Boeing factory in Everett, Washington with six engineers on board.

A company spokesman said the flight, on a Boeing-owned airplane built for Poland’s LOT, “went according to plan”.  On one of the two lithium ion batteries on the plane, all four elements of Boeing’s layered modification plan were installed, including the venting battery box that is intended to contain fire and vent smoke should all other battery protection systems fail and a thermal runaway event occur.

“We will analyze the data from the flight and begin preparations for certification ground and flight demonstration in the coming days,” Boeing said in a statement. Another flight on this airplane “will demonstrate that the new battery system performs as intended during flight conditions”. Just one flight will be used to convince the Federal Aviation Administration to reverse its nine-week grounding of the Dreamliner.

In anticipation of a positive response from the FAA, some 787 customers are already making plans to restart Dreamliner service. United told employees that ship 904, the plane now stranded in Japan, could begin flying as soon as the last week of April. That airplane and the 787s owned by Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways will be the first to get battery modifications installed with the assistance of special teams dispatched from Boeing.

The teams will work on the United, JAL and ANA airplanes as well as the others owned by LOT, LAN of Chile, Ethiopian, Air India and Qatar. Marc Birtel, a Boeing spokesman says, “Our baseline plan is to provide new installations in roughly the same order as initial deliveries.”  United’s ship 904 jumps the line because it is already in Japan. It had completed a flight to Tokyo when the grounded was ordered.

While ANA had been flying the Dreamliner for more than a year and JAL for nine months, other customers had only weeks or a few months with the plane. The suspension of flights affected pilot training schedules and interrupted the process of familiarization. Sources say once the airplane goes back into service, United will assign check airmen on the flight deck, and require each airplane fly four domestic flights before overseas trips resume.

Even as they make their plans, Dreamliner customers are reminded that the story is far from over. On Monday, the National Transportation Safety Board announced it would hold a two-day hearing to examine the overall safety of lithium ion batteries. This comes just days after the board’s general counsel, David Tochen chastised Boeing for violating the terms of its participation on the investigation. Tochen wrote that Boeing should have notified the board in advance of what it would say before holding a two-hour news conference in Japan on March 14.

On this subject the NTSB can get prickly. In 2010, it removed American Airlines from an investigation after the airline removed information from a flight data recorder on an airplane that had been involved in a runway overrun in Wyoming. One year earlier, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association was also bounced from participating in the probe into the cause of a mid air collision in New York, when the union held a news conference to discuss its interpretation of information gathered by investigators.

While Tochen’s letter did not threaten to remove Boeing, insiders say the board is annoyed that during the news conference, 787 vice president Mike Sinnett told reporters there was no fire in either of the two 787 battery events.

Boeing 787 chief engineer Mike Sennitt told reporters, “It is true that the venting propagated from one cell to another but that is not the same as a fire spreading throughout the battery. In neither case was there a fire inside the blue case of the battery.”

The comments were seen as analysis and an inappropriate conclusion for the company to be taking considering that the investigation is not over.

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About Christine Negroni

Christine Negroni is a contributor to the The New York Times, the International Herald Tribune, Airways and Executive Travel magazine. She blogs at www.christinenegroni.blogspot.com and www.gohowknowhow.com

View all posts by Christine Negroni

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