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Boeing to propose quick fix to put Dreamliners back in the air

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SEATTLE — Boeing will propose to regulators, perhaps this week, a short-term fix to bolster the 787 Dreamliner’s defenses in case of battery fires like those that have kept the jet grounded the past month.

The goal is to get the planes flying again, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the matter, while Boeing works on a comprehensive redesign of the lithium-ion battery system that could take nine months or more to implement.

The interim fix includes a heavy-duty titanium or steel containment box around the battery cells, and high-pressure evacuation tubes that, in the event of a battery fire, would vent any gases directly to the outside of the jet.

Boeing’s approach implicitly acknowledges that four weeks after two batteries overheated — one catching fire on the ground, the other smoldering in flight — investigators have still not pinpointed the cause.

That leaves Boeing little option for now but to engineer a solution that will better contain any such incident and protect the airplane.

However, it’s unclear if the Federal Aviation Administration is ready to accept containment of an overheated battery cell rather than prevention.

“We’re not there yet,” said a government official with knowledge of the ongoing discussions, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “It wouldn’t surprise me if we’re still talking weeks before everyone is comfortable.”

Even if the FAA agrees, the short-term fix will take at least three months to design, test, certify and retrofit, said a source who knows details of Boeing’s proposed solutions.

That would mean the earliest the Dreamliners could fly passengers again would be May. If it’s much longer than that, assembly of the jets in Everett will probably have to be slowed and Boeing’s plan to increase production will be severely disrupted, he said.

“This cannot drag out for six to nine months ... from a financial standpoint. Think about nine months of airplanes just sitting there,” the source said.

Boeing will not disclose any details of the solutions it is working on.

Unlike Airbus, which this past week said it will switch to nickel cadmium main batteries for its forthcoming A350 jet to avoid the possibility of delays, Boeing insists it will stick with the high-energy lithium-ion batteries that provide emergency backup power for the 787.

“Boeing is confident in the safety and reliability of lithium-ion batteries,” said spokesman Marc Birtel, and “good progress is being made” in resolving the battery problem.

Aviation experts are increasingly worried.

Adam Pilarski of consulting firm Avitas warns that though Wall Street currently accepts Boeing’s optimism that the 787 grounding will be relatively short, this forgiving attitude may not last.

“Boeing is trying to play it down to some degree, hopeful the solution is just around the corner,” Pilarski said. “But it may take much longer. And it could have a significant financial impact.”

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