By Bart Jansen, USA TODAY
TOKYO - Boeing executives outlined plans Friday to get passengers back aboard 787 Dreamliners within weeks, after testing a new design of the innovative plane's lithium-ion battery.
The Federal Aviation Administration approved test flights and other certification testing for the redesigned batteries Tuesday, after failures aboard two planes. In the briefing in Tokyo, Boeing executives acknowledged not finding the reason for the two failures, but said the remedies would prevent any future battery fires.
"We may never get to the single root cause," said Mike Sinnett, chief project engineer for the 787. "We have made significant improvements across the board."
Ray Conner, CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, said airlines that already have the first 49 planes would receive the first redesigned batteries, and then production models in Everett, Wash., would receive them.
"We would anticipate it would be weeks, but it may be longer," Conner said, depending on FAA review of the company's testing.
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta has said there is no timetable for completing the testing or certifying the plane for passenger flights.
Asked whether he would fly on the plane again, Conner said he would be on the first passenger flight.
"My answer is simple: absolutely," Conner said. "I would gladly have my family -- my wife and my children -- flying this airplane.
Conner said the briefing was held in Japan because the largest customers are there and more than one-third of the plane's parts are manufactured there. He apologized to Japan, airlines and passengers for the battery failures.
"We certainly do apologize for that," Conner said. "This is very disturbing for us."
The FAA and other safety regulators grounded the worldwide fleet on Jan. 16, when an All Nippon Airways flight made an emergency landing in Japan because of the smell of a smoldering battery. On Jan. 7, a Japan Airlines plane parked in Boston caught fire.
The National Transportation Safety Board said three-inch flames sprouted from the Boston battery. But Sinnett said there was no fire in the ANA plane and there was no flame within the battery box - only once the box had been breached.
Sinnett said engineers who spent more than 200,000 hours studying the battery failures tracked down 80 possible problems. After lumping them into four categories, Sinnett said engineers developed solutions for every possible cause.
Plans call for insulating each of the battery's eight cells, tightening the range of voltage the battery receives from the charger and installing a fireproof shell with a venting system to send electrolytes and smoke overboard if there is another battery failure. The shell and venting are intended to starve the battery of oxygen so even if there is a failure, it won't result in a fire, Sinnett said.
Asked if there could be an 81st or 84th problem that engineers haven't foreseen, Sinnett said the fireproof shell and venting would deal with it so that the plane could land safely.
"I am very, very confident that we won't have a fire as a result," Sinnett said.