* Some 787s should be ready to fly again in about a week
* ANA plans 100 to 200 round trip test flights in May
* United expects to start work on planes this week-source
* 787 chief says may never know what caused battery problem
By Tim Kelly and Rhys Jones
TOKYO/LONDON, April 22 Boeing began
installing reinforced lithium-ion battery systems on five 787
jets in Japan on Monday, starting a process that should make the
first commercial Dreamliners ready to fly again in about a week.
Boeing's Dreamliners have been grounded since regulators
ordered all 50 planes out of the skies in mid-January after
batteries on two of them overheated. U.S. regulators approved a
new battery design on Friday, clearing the way for installation.
The grounding has cost Boeing an estimated $600 million,
halted deliveries and forced some airlines to lease alternative
aircraft. Several airlines have said they will seek compensation
from Boeing, potentially adding to the plane maker's losses.
Investors expect to learn more about the costs when Boeing
reports second-quarter earnings on Wednesday.
The first five jets to receive the new strengthened battery
system all belong to All Nippon Airways, the airline
that launched the first commercial Dreamliner service in 2011.
"Our first priority is to get the existing fleet back into
the air," Larry Loftis, vice president and general manager of
the 787 program at Boeing, told European reporters.
Ten teams of some 30 engineers each have been dispatched by
Boeing worldwide to install the stronger battery casing and
other components designed to prevent a repeat of the meltdowns
that led to the first U.S. fleet grounding in 34 years.
The plan approved by the Federal Aviation Administration
calls for Boeing to encase the lithium-ion batteries in a steel
box, install new battery chargers, and add a duct to vent gases
directly outside the aircraft in the event of overheating.
European authorities are expected to follow suit in
approving the battery design, a spokesman for Europe's aviation
safety body said.
ANA is the world's biggest operator of the lightweight
carbon-composite aircraft, with 17 of the planes. The
next-biggest is Japan Airlines Co with seven jets,
followed by United Airlines and Air India with
ANA plans about 100 to 200 round-trip test flights in May of
its repaired aircraft before carrying passengers again in June,
sources knowledgeable about ANA's operations have said.
The flights will check the safety of the aircraft, and allow
ANA's 180 Dreamliner pilots to get accustomed to flying it again
and renew their licenses after more than a three-month break.
United, the only U.S. airline with Dreamliners, currently
has 787 domestic flights set to start May 31. A person familiar
with the matter said United expects work on its 787s to begin as
early as this week.
In Addis Ababa, a source at Ethiopian Airlines, which had
taken delivery of four 787s before the grounding, said they
could be flying in a matter of days. Boeing says each battery
modification takes about five days to install.
Richard Aboulafia, of consulting firm Teal Group, said that
although most airlines have large enough fleets to adjust in
case the 787s were delayed further, the FAA go-ahead gives them
the ability to proceed with new routes, like United's
Denver-Tokyo Narita service planned for June 10.
WHAT WENT WRONG?
Although the plane is deemed safe to fly, investigators in
the U.S. and Japan have yet to unravel what caused a 787 battery
onboard an ANA jet in Japan and one on another JAL Dreamliner
parked at Boston's Logan Airport to overheat.
The National Transportation Safety Board is due to hold
public hearings on Tuesday and Wednesday to advance its probe
into the cause of a fire that destroyed a 787 battery in Boston
Loftis said Boeing believed it had anticipated "the whole
universe of possible causes" after exhaustive studies and
testing to devise the battery fix.
"We went to great lengths to question every assumption we
made in the initial design and greatly expanded the thought
process for what could be potential causes," Loftis said.
"It is possible we will never know the real cause," he
added. "If we learn anything new we will make changes as
Loftis said the crisis would not affect the development of
other jets and would not derail Boeing's plans to double 787
production to 10 a month by the end of the year. Nor would it
delay the next version of the 787, known as the 787-9.
"We aren't changing forecasts for future (787) orders
because of this incident," he said.
Boeing has continued to produce Dreamliners at the rate of
five a month during the three-month grounding. Deliveries are
likely to resume within weeks, Loftis said.
The 787 is the first jetliner to be fitted with lithium-ion
main power batteries, which are lighter and smaller but
potentially more volatile than the nickel-cadmium sources used
on most planes. The batteries are mainly used for ground power,
rather than functions critical to maintaining flight.
Loftis said the extra steel housing and other accessories
fitted to the batteries to keep them safe weighed about 150 lbs
(68 kilograms), cancelling out the batteries' weight savings.
Boeing gave some thought to switching back to traditional
nickel-cadmium as rival Airbus has done, but found no reason to
do so, he said.
Some aircraft industry sources say space limitations where
the batteries are installed on the Dreamliner might have reduced