FAA Gives Boeing Go Ahead To Test New Battery System

Mar 12, 2013

Last Updated: March 12, 2013 5:30 p.m. 

In a statement, the FAA said Boeing could go ahead with its plan to test a redesigned battery system for the 787. The FAA also gave the green light to limited flights for two aircraft that will have test versions of the new systems.

Aviation industry analyst Richard Aboulafia said he expected federal regulators to act sooner. “I’m a little surprised that it took them this long. It seems like a bit of a no brainer,” said Aboulafia.

Two months ago, two 787s had problems with their lithium-ion batteries. One caught fire on the ground, the other began to smoke mid-flight. The worldwide fleet was grounded until the cause of the fires could be determined. Last week, the National Transportation Safety Board said it could not pinpoint the reason for the fires. Meanwhile, Boeing engineers have devised a new system intended to separate the individual battery cells, in an effort to contain any fire that might ignite.  

Aboulafia says it’s great that Boeing will get a chance to test that system, but he says the company shouldn’t put all its bets on fixing the lithium-ion batteries.

“I’m skeptical about this as a long-term fix that the FAA will accept,” said Aboulafia. “But in terms of just experimenting with it and seeing where it goes, it’s an absolute necessity. They need to move forward on this.”

In a statement released today, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said, "This comprehensive series of tests will show us whether the proposed battery improvements will work as designed. We won't allow the plane to return to service unless we're satisfied that the new design ensures the safety of the aircraft and its passengers."

Boeing welcomed the FAA’s decision to let the company test the redesigned battery system. Now it has to finish retrofitting the two 787s for the flight tests. A company spokeswoman says Boeing hopes to complete testing as quickly as possible.  Weeks, rather than months, she says.