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Dreamliner batteries may be rebuilt

Jet’s return date remains unclear

Boeing says its 787 Dreamliner is 20 percent more fuel-efficient than other mid-size jets.

Anthony Bolante/Reuters/File 2011

Boeing says its 787 Dreamliner is 20 percent more fuel-efficient than other mid-size jets.

WASHINGTON — Experts at the Federal Aviation Administration are expected to say next week whether they recommend accepting Boeing’s plan to fix its troubled 787 Dreamliners so they can resume flying, the agency’s head said Wednesday.

Officials in the Seattle-area office are reviewing a Boeing plan to revamp the jet’s lithium-ion batteries to prevent them from catching fire, or to protect the plane in case of fire, administrator Michael Huerta said.

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It’s up to Huerta to decide whether to accept the plan. He declined to say when he might make that decision, or how long it might be before the planes are back in the air.

‘‘It’s a very long proposal [with] a lot of technical detail in it,’’ Huerta said. ‘‘I’m reviewing it myself, as well as relying on the teams that are reviewing it.’’

The planes have been grounded since Jan. 16 after a battery caught fire in a 787 parked at Logan International Airport in Boston and a smoking battery in a different 787 forced an emergency landing in Japan. There are 50 of the planes in service worldwide, and Boeing had orders for 800 of the airliners when they were grounded.

Huerta said Boeing engineers worked with outside experts to narrow the potential causes of the mishaps and then redesigned the batteries. The 787 has two identical 32-volt batteries, each with eight cells.

Investigators have said the problems began with short-circuiting in a single cell, leading to a chemical reaction that causes progressively hotter temperatures. That spread the short-circuiting and fire to other cells. But the root cause of the initial short-circuiting has not been identified. That places the FAA in the awkward position of being asked to approve a fix for a problem with its origins still unknown.

The agency has been in this situation before. After TWA Flight 800 exploded off the coast of Long Island, N.Y., in 1996, killing all 230 people aboard, investigators pinned the cause on flammable vapors in one of the Boeing 747’s fuel tanks. But they were never able to conclusively identify the source of the spark that ignited vapors. Nevertheless, FAA engineers were ultimately able to come up with new requirements for fuel tanks.

Boeing’s plan for the 787 includes redesigning the batteries to prevent individual cells from catching fire, Huerta said. Should that fail, the plan includes steps to prevent a fire from spreading to other cells or outside the box that contains all eight cells.

‘‘What Boeing has assembled is a team to look at the universe of potential causes, and their proposal is to mitigate all of them,’’ Huerta said.

If the plan is approved, the next step would be extensive engineering and testing before a final decision is made on resuming flights, he said. He described the process as ‘‘effectively a certification plan.’’

‘‘We have to be assured that this is a good plan and that it is going to result in a safe situation,’’ Huerta said.

The 787 is the world’s first airliner made mostly from lightweight composite materials. It also relies on electronic systems rather than hydraulic or mechanical systems to a greater degree than any other airliner. And it is the first jet to make extensive use of lithium-ion batteries, which are lighter, recharge faster, and can hold more energy than other types of batteries.

Boeing has billed the plane to its customers as 20 percent more fuel-efficient than other mid-size airliners — a big selling point, since fuel is the biggest expense for most airlines.

Airlines have been forced to tear up their schedules while the planes are out of service. Last week, United Airlines cut its six 787s from its flying plans at least until June and postponed its new Denver-to-Tokyo flights. United is the only US carrier with 787s in its fleet.

LOT Polish Airlines has said the grounding of its two 787s is costing it $50,000 per day. Most affected has been All Nippon Airways, which has 17 of the planes.

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