It has been roughly three months since the January grounding of all operational 787 Dreamliner aircraft because of thermal runaway conditions related to this aircraft’s installed lithium ion batteries.  In our previous Commentary Seven penned about a month ago we noted that once U.S. FAA authorities give the go-ahead to Boeing to make its new engineering changes, such changes would take a minimum of 4-5 weeks to complete if everything were to go according to plan. Boeing received FAA approval to go-ahead with its proposed engineering changes on March 12 which included a new series of in-flight tests. Reports since our last commentary now indicate that Boeing has included a newly redesigned battery charging system in its new collection of engineering changes.

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Source: Boeing web site

On Friday, Boeing indicated that it had completed its testing of the redesigned lithium ion battery system.  The Wall Street Journal reported that all of the testing methods were approved in advance by the FAA along with the testing methods. After weeks of ground testing, FAA officials accompanied Boeing representatives on a reported “uneventful” two-hour test flight.

The process now enters the final approval stage among Boeing and the FAA.  Some, including ourselves, speculate this regulatory approval stage may drag on since FAA administrator Michael Huerta and U.S Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood remain focused on insuring that all theories related to root cause of these battery issues have been identified and addressed.  Other global based regulators such as Japan remain focused on their own separate reviews and need to sign-off on the proposed fixes.

The WSJ further reports that Boeing is moving ahead with preparations to ship to all affected air carriers special upgrade kits that will include modified batteries and associated new component parts that will make-up the modified lithium-ion battery system.  Boeing has further marshaled teams of specialized technicians who will be dispatched to the various affected air carrier maintenance sites to help with the installation process.

Boeing is optimistically anticipating a mid to late April timing of the approval and go-ahead process but other industry watchers are indicating June as a more realistic timetable for re-certification of the 787, given the ongoing uncertainties among regulatory administrators.  At least one airline, United Holdings has moved ahead with its operational scheduling and not included its new 787’s supporting flights until mid-June.

Since the grounding crisis occurred in early January, Boeing has been maintaining its production schedule of completing ten 787 Dreamliners per month, which have been staged in field staging areas. Once approval is granted, these staged aircraft will have to be expeditiously refitted with the modified battery system and delivered to awaiting customers.  Suppliers within Boeing’s global chain have also been long anticipating a return to normalized customer delivery schedules so that supplier payments can return to normalcy. One published report is also indicating that at least one 787 customer is requesting alternative sourcing of the lithium ion battery.

Participants in the Boeing 787 supply chain, who have undergone continuous challenges since the start of this program, desperately need to assume an environment of synchronized execution to complete the aggressive monthly delivery needs of over 800 overdue customer orders. We all trust that Boeing will move beyond the current lithium battery incidents to move toward that milestone.  Then again, this program has had a history of unfortunate setbacks.

Bob Ferrari