Sunday, April 7, 2013

787 Return to Service now in the hands of the FAA

On Friday April 5th Boeing conducted the one and only certification test flight on ZA272 (LN 86, SP-LRC) for their proposed fix to the lithium ion battery issues that have bought worldwide 787 to a halt.  Boeing had already conducted the ground test of the battery containment system on ZA005 (LN 5, N787FT).  In that test the battery was intentionally short circuited to allow a thermal runway to occur thus testing the ability of the new containment system to prevent smoke, flame and electrolytes from escaping thus risking the aircraft and passengers.

The test flight which lasted about 2 hours is the final items that needed by the FAA in order for order for them to certify the battery fix.  In the next few days Boeing will turn over all the remaining data that is needed. The FAA and Boeing will have a continuous dialogue over the next few weeks and the FAA may even require more tests before giving its approval but the general consensus is that the FAA will give its approval to the fix and approve of Boeing's Service Bulletin & amend the emergency Airworthiness Directive it issued in mid January grounding the 787.  Boeing has teams in place to start implementing the fix once the FAA (and other international aviation regulators like Japan's JCAB and Europe's EASA) have approved. 

The fix will take 4 to 5 days to install on each aircraft though I think it's reasonable to assume that multiple aircraft will be worked on at the same time.  Assuming that Boeing has (according to reports in the media) 8 teams ready to implement the fix along with the associated hardware at the ready, it will take Boeing about 6 weeks to return all 50 delivered 787s to service.  If the approval is given by middle of April then it is reasonable to assume that the 50 787s that are grounded can resume regular revenue service by early June depending on the individual airline's readiness to do so.

So how long until deliveries begin? Boeing will have 30+ 787s ready for delivery but waiting for the battery fix to be installed. I don't have any information as to how many of these service ready 787s can be modified each week but I think it is reasonable to assume that Boeing can have up to 3 ready each week to continue the standard pre delivery ground and flight test regimen once the FAA has given its approval. I am also assuming that Boeing will start ground and flight tests from scratch given the new equipment that is being installed would also need to be tested out on each aircraft.  Thus I'm assuming about 5 weeks for all pre-delivery ground and flight tests to be conducted prior to delivery.  This would translate to roughly 6 weeks before Boeing resumes regular 787 deliveries.  This would mean that deliveries can resume as early as the beginning of June.  It still uncertain how many 787s Boeing can deliver this year until deliveries actually re-start and the rate of battery modifications are determined but at the moment they're maintaining their 787 delivery guidance at 60+.  It is still possible to reach that goal but it would mean that Boeing will have to undertake an aggressive rate of production testing on the 30+ 787s that are on the lines at Everett and Charleston.

An added complication are the NTSB hearings scheduled for the second half of April concerning the lithium ion battery technology as well as the FAA's certification of the 787's battery system along with Senate hearings into the FAA approval process for the 787.  While I don't expect any earth shattering news out of any of these three hearings pundits wondered aloud if these hearings will have any bearing on the timing of FAA approval, with some saying that the FAA won't give its approval until after the hearings are done. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood even said that the fix that Boeing has proposed appears to be good.  Whenever the FAA gives its decision, it does appear that Boeing in on the verge of overcoming yet another issue related to the Dreamliner.


TravelingMan said...

Is it expected that the 787 will keep its ETOPS certification?

Uresh said...

Unknown at this time.

Dave C said...

Hi Uresh,
I was wondering if you are going to be able to keep us up to date as to which aircraft returns to service and when, perhaps another spreadsheet to cover these groundings may be useful?

Uresh said...

It'll be hard to get that sort of information

Cedarglen said...

Thanks for the update. How soon the 787 returns to revenue service is still in the hands of the FAA. The FAA, perhaps even more than Boeing got burned on this one and they're not about to lift/modify the January EAD until they are VERY sure that the 'fix' is thorough and proper. As much a many at Boeing would like to be irritated with the FAA, no one at the air-framer is singing that tune. In fact, the FAA's January EAD likely saved Boeing's bacon. Both Boeing and the FAA still have to deal with the pending NTSB hearing, both are likely to be unhappy with such close examination of their procedures, but it MUST happen. We and the industry as a whole should pay **very close attention** to comments and analyses from the NTSB investigators and board members. Even with zero regulatory authority, the NTSB's findings about the certification process and the cozy relationship between FAA and Boeing will carry a lot of weight in many places. We NEED to know what the NTSB folks discover.
I'm sure that the 787 will survive. It simply has to and it is a fine airplane. That said, Boeing and the FAA have dropped the ball more than once. I have to wonder of the 787 will ever turn a genuine profit for Boeing, even after the -9 and -10 variants enter service. If it does, it will be a while...

Andrew Boydston said...

The words, “when will it profit”, always seems to come up concerning the 787. This latest foray into the unknowns of glitch and change sets all the profit time tables aback some but not out. The big picture is the overall new technology that will define air travel for some years to come. Whether it will be for the 777X program or for the 787 9-10’s. The profit picture no longer hangs on current sales, but on the overall impact of the change model Boeing has built in the 787. The program is still a risk which is steadily being squeezed down into simple manageable risks. This latest problem with the battery/electrical is a turning point for the program. Once settled there are just a few outstanding items possibly that could turn-up just as a matter of new aircraft refinement. Where hours, cycles and supply chain normally reveal during the maturing process, but only in limited numbers and severity. The electrical area is the big ticket item that requires this process a full understanding, and a full resolution. Airbus has a strategy or tendency for side stepping road blocks by selecting old technology over new when trying to make a mad dash of catching Boeing’s technological advances. Airbus may return to Lithium-ion once Boeing, FAA, and NTSB solve the issues. Airbus sees it as, nothing visible to passengers and nothing risked by its customers keeps aircraft selling. Boeing sees it as a quantum play to leaping ahead of Airbus once all the irons have cooled done in the fire.

tommy said...

Great update!
Moonm just posted a picture on flickr of JA834J, a 787 for JAL. Do you know which line number this is?

Andrew said...

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