Boeing completed a test flight on Friday of its 787 Dreamliner, part of a regimen of tests aimed at certifying a reworked system to prevent fire or overheating of the plane's lithium-ion batteries.
The flight lasted about 1 hour and 50 minutes, landing at 12:28 pm Pacific Time, according to Boeing. Data from the flight, which had Federal Aviation Administration officials aboard, will be submitted to the FAA, which will decide whether to approve the plane for flight.
Boeing pronounced the flight "straightforward" and "uneventful" after the jet returned safely.
With the successful flight, Boeing moves closer to proving that the revamped safety system can prevent the batteries from overheating or catching fire.
FOCUS SHIFTS TO REGULATORS
Friday's test flight concludes testing after little more than three weeks, and moves the 787 closer to resuming passenger flights, restarting deliveries, and stemming millions of dollars in losses that have piled up at Boeing and airlines since the aircraft was grounded more than two months ago.
The end of testing also turns attention from Boeing to regulators in the United States, Japan and Europe, who must decide whether the fix for the high-tech plane's lithium-ion batteries is safe.
"Boeing will now gather and analyze the data and submit the required materials to the FAA... in coming days," the company said in a statement.
"Once we deliver the materials we stand ready to reply to additional requests and continue in dialog with the FAA to ensure we have met all of their expectations."
Industry officials and airlines that operate the 787 have said they expect it could be flying again later this month or May. Boeing has said it should happen in weeks, not months.
US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who oversees the FAA, told reporters on Friday that Boeing has a "good plan" to fix the battery and that he wants to ensure the 787 is safe before allowing the planes back in the air.
"They're doing the tests now, and we've agreed with the tests that they're doing," he said before Boeing's final test flight took off.
"When they complete the tests, they'll give us the information and we'll make a decision."
An FAA spokesperson has said the agency has been closely involved with the testing process "so data review may not take long."
However, she added that despite Boeing's "aggressive" testing schedule, "the FAA will work at its own pace."
OVERHEATING CAUSE NOT KNOWN
Meanwhile, it remains unknown what caused two batteries to overheat on separate jets in January.
The US National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the battery that caught fire on a parked plane in Boston, will hold two public meetings this month to gather more information about lithium-battery technology and the assumptions Boeing and the FAA made in certifying the original battery system.
After the battery failures, Boeing put more insulation in the battery, encased the battery in a steel box, changed the circuitry of the battery charger and added a titanium venting tube to expel heat and fumes outside the plane.
The company said its fix addresses more than 80 potential causes and is thus more robust than if a single cause had been pinpointed. It also noted that media reports have exaggerated the risk from the battery, which is not generally used for flight-critical systems on the plane, but instead helps supply power on the ground.
"There's a very good chance that this works and gets accepted," said Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst at the Teal Group.
"There's also a chance that it gets derailed for technical or political reasons and I'm not confident Boeing's got a backup plan. There's probably a bigger risk that politics derails it."
In addition to the FAA, Japan's Civil Aviation Bureau and the European Aviation Safety Agency must also approve the fix. Both are expected to follow the FAA's lead and certify it around the same time.
CAB official Shigeru Takano said on Friday that he cannot predict how long it would take for the authorities to reach a decision.
Boeing would then submit a "service bulletin" with detailed information about the fix, which the FAA would need to approve for distribution to airlines. Then the planes would be fixed and airlines would decide when to put them back into service.
Each fix is supposed to take three days, and Boeing has already been assembling kits and teams to retrofit the 50 jets that are now operated by airlines, said Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute think tank.
Japan's All Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines are the biggest of the 787's eight customers. ANA, the launch customer, will be the first to have its jets fixed.
Despite the mounting cost, which is estimated at more than USD$500 million, Boeing is likely to weather the crisis without significant damage to its earnings or the long-term profitability of the plane.
The 787 is designed for 50 years of production, and Boeing's accounting for its initial production years includes more than USD$120 billion in costs. On that scale, expenses from the grounding are "probably unobservable or not material," said Carter Copeland, an analyst at Barclays in New York. "Very few people are even talking about it."
Boeing's stock has rallied through the crisis, rising 16 percent since regulators grounded the fleet on January 16. It closed up 1.4 percent at USD$86.17 on the New York Stock Exchange on Friday.
Regulators may restrict the plane from making long trips over water until the battery system is proven in flight, which would hurt airline operations. But that would be temporary.
But Aboulafia doubted that the 787, which offers not only fuel savings to airlines but better cabin pressure, humidity and creature comforts to passengers, would suffer in the public eye from the battery problems.
"There's absolutely no evidence of any lasting effect in terms of public perception," he said.
Gravity always wins!