Battery Retrofits Complete as China Finally Approves 787

 - June 3, 2013, 3:05 PM
A display of delivered 787 Dreamliner tails adorns Boeing’s final assembly facility in Everett, Washington. The manufacturer said on May 29 that battery system retrofits have been completed on the delivered aircraft. (Photo: Bill Carey)

Boeing says it has finished installing a battery system modification on the first 50 delivered 787 Dreamliners that were grounded pending the retrofit. Randy Tinseth, Boeing Commercial Airplanes vice president of marketing, made the announcement in a blog post on May 29, reporting that all eight current 787 operators expect to return their Dreamliners to service within days and “we can’t thank all of them enough for their patience, partnership and support” during the grounding of more than three months.

Ethiopian Airlines was the first operator to restart commercial 787 service with a flight from Addis Ababa to Nairobi that included CEO Tewolde Gebremariam and Tinseth as passengers on April 27. The next operators to resume 787 service were: Qatar Airways on May 1; Air India on May 15; and United Airlines on May 20. LOT Polish Airlines, Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways resumed operating 787s on June 1, which was also the target date for Chile’s LAN Airlines to resume flying the type.

Aviation authorities in Japan, the U.S. and other affected countries grounded the delivered Dreamliners in mid-January following two separate incidents of malfunctioning lithium-ion batteries in the U.S. and Japan. In March, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration approved Boeing’s certification plan to return the 787 to flight. It authorized design modifications to the battery system in April. In an airworthiness directive that took effect on April 26, the FAA required that 787 operators replace the aircraft’s main and APU lithium-ion batteries and their chargers and install a new containment and venting system. The modification has been incorporated in Boeing’s production line in Everett, Washington, for the 787s moving through assembly.

Before Boeing’s aircraft-on-ground teams could start the retrofits, new parts had to be made. New stainless-steel battery enclosures and other parts were fabricated at Auburn, Washington, and other sites. The fabrication team shipped the parts to Boeing’s spares distribution center in Seattle, where they were packaged into “battery containment kits” and sent to the airlines. Each kit contained “two ventilated battery containment boxes and the vast majority of the parts needed to complete the modification, including insulation, tubing, wiring and supporting hardware like brackets and fasteners,” Boeing said. Battery manufacturer GS Yuasa of Japan sent redesigned batteries directly to the airlines.

Meanwhile, China Southern Airlines has become the first Chinese carrier to take delivery of a 787, after the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) ended a long and largely unexplained delay in issuing its type certificate. The carrier received its first Dreamliner in Guangzhou on Sunday, according to reports from within China. The aircraft left Seattle late on Friday local time with a special “Wings of Dream” paint scheme.

The CAAC certified the 787 almost two years after EASA and the FAA gave their approval for the widebody. The authority has not publicly explained its motives for the delay, nor is it clear whether this was prolonged by the recent problems with the aircraft’s lithium-ion batteries. It was almost a month after FAA lifted its grounding of the aircraft when CAAC finally relented and gave approval for imports to China. Initially, Chinese 787 operators will be restricted to using the long-range aircraft only on domestic routes.

China Southern is one of four Chinese carriers to order the 787. The other three are Hainan Airlines, Xiamen Airlines and Air China. The four operators have ordered a total of 41 Dreamliners.