Boeing on Wednesday instructed a small team of top machinists at its Auburn parts plant to begin building new, high-strength containment boxes for the lithium-ion batteries on its 787s as part of a redesign intended to get the planes flying again as soon as April.
An Auburn insider said the company ordered 200 such boxes, with the first 100 to be ready by March 18.
Commercial Airplanes CEO Ray Conner will lay out the company’s plan to Federal Aviation Administration officials Friday, but it’s unclear whether regulators will sign on to the fast-paced schedule.
Boeing executives briefed key members of Congress in Washington, D.C. Wednesday, telling them it has developed a permanent fix to the battery problems and hopes to have the Dreamliners back in passenger service quickly, assuming expeditious FAA approval.
A congressional aide said Boeing representatives in one such meeting “were adamant that it will be a permanent fix, and rejected reports that mentioned a temporary fix.” They also cited the April target date, the aide said.
Boeing spokesman Marc Birtel declined to comment on any conversations with regulatory authorities but reiterated an earlier statement that “good progress is being made” toward finding a fix.
According to a person familiar with Boeing’s proposal, Conner plans to provide FAA head Michael Huerta details of the fix along lines previously reported: most importantly, a stronger outer containment box and a system of high-pressure tubes that vent any gases directly out of the airplane.
Another element is that the eight cells inside the re-designed battery box will be separated by more insulation than in the current design, possibly high-temperature glass.
Boeing believes it can implement those and other new battery design elements quickly and can make it a permanent fix, to be incorporated on all subsequent Dreamliners. That contradicts earlier reports in the Seattle Times and elsewhere that the company will first implement a temporary fix.
Boeing engineers contend, and hope their tests will show, that their redesign will prevent a runaway battery fire.
It’s unclear if the FAA will be ready to move as swiftly as Boeing would like.
Boeing is unlikely to get a full go-ahead at the meeting Friday. There will be a back and forth to follow, with requirements for flight tests to validate Boeing’s solution.
Investigators at the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) are still looking for the root cause of the two incidents that prompted the current crisis — a battery fire in a 787 on the ground in Boston in early January, followed just eight days later by a smoldering battery on a 787 flight in Japan.
The FAA must take into account that investigation, which found that the battery fire in Boston was started by a short circuit in a single cell but hasn’t established what caused that short.
In the absence of knowing the root cause, said the person with knowledge of Boeing’s proposal, the jetmaker’s fix accounts for the possibility that a battery cell will overheat at some time in the future. The new battery design aims to ensure that if that happens, the airplane is safe.
The person made an analogy to how the FAA handled the crash of TWA 800 in 1996.
While investigators into that tragedy learned that the fuel tank had exploded, the ignition source was never pinned down.
That forced the FAA to come up with a way to eliminate the possibility of any explosion, regardless of the ignition source: It mandated a fuel tank inerting system that pumped nitrogen into the tank to displace flammable fuel vapor.
“That seems to be the discussion now: it would be great to find the root cause, but let’s take it a step further and eliminate the possibilities,” the person said.
Industry analysts have expressed skepticism that the FAA will readily approve a fix that focuses on containing an in-flight fire, rather than preventing one.
But the person familiar with Boeing’s fix insisted that “it’s not containment versus prevention. It’s containment and prevention.”
The idea is that venting off the airplane all the gas from an overheated cell will prevent an oxygen fire inside the battery. Meanwhile, the better thermal insulation between cells should prevent the heat from spreading through the battery and setting off adjacent cells.
“If you redesign the battery so it’s not possible for the cells to propagate into a battery-wide fire, then you’ve prevented that from happening,” the person said. “And on top of that you are building a containment box so that, if there is a problem, you are doubly protected.”
Still, he said, Boeing’s proposed timetable for getting the 787s back in service “is pretty aggressive.”
The news of Boeing’s fast-track fix came on the same day that the investigation of the in-flight incident in Japan appeared to add a new wrinkle.
The problem on that aircraft was overheating of the main battery in the forward electronics bay.
But according to the Associated Press, the Japan Transport Ministry said Wednesday that the aircraft’s other lithium ion battery — the one in the rear electronics bay that’s connected to the jet’s auxiliary power unit — was mis-wired and improperly connected to the main battery that overheated.
It’s unclear what impact that finding will have.
Meanwhile, Boeing’s plan to fix the battery problems is already in motion.
The Boeing Auburn employee, who asked for anonymity, said the work of building the new battery boxes has been designated urgent and top priority.
Three crews of six volunteers — all “very talented mechanics” — will work in three daily shifts, producing the new battery boxes around the clock.
The parts needed have not yet come in and design changes are expected as the work proceeds, the employee said.