A senior Boeing executive will meet the head of the US Federal Aviation Administration on Friday and present a series of measures aimed at preventing battery failures that grounded its 787 Dreamliner fleet for five weeks, according to a source familiar with the plans.
Ray Conner, who heads Boeing's commercial planes unit, will explain the proposed changes to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta on Friday, but the plans have already been vetted with lower level US government officials, the source said.
If Huerta and US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood accept the proposed plan, that could lay the groundwork for resuming flights of the Boeing 787 by April, said the source, who asked not to be identified.
The engineering changes that Boeing has proposed include an improved box to contain any possible fire in the airliner's lithium-ion batteries. They are aimed at addressing four possible causes for the battery failures that resulted in a fire in a parked 787 in the US on January 7, and a separate incident that forced a second 787 to make an emergency landing in Japan.
The grounding of all 50 Dreamliners that have already been delivered is costing Boeing and the airlines that operate the airliner dearly, compounding pressures caused by earlier delays in 787 deliveries.
On Wednesday, the chief executive of Australia's Qantas Airways said it had received AUD$125 million in compensation income from Boeing for 787 delivery delays.
Analysts estimate Boeing is missing out on about USD$200 million in delivery payments every month that the 787 remains grounded, while spending USD$1 billion a month to keep its 787 production line running.
A second source familiar with Boeing's plans said the company also planned to increase the space between the cells in the lithium-ion batteries made by Japan's GS Yuasa as a potential fix.
"The gaps between cells will be bigger. I think that's why there was overheating," said the source, who declined to be identified because the plans are private.
A spokeswoman for the US National Transportation Safety Board declined comment on the potential battery fix or any Boeing plan to return the 787s to the air.
"The decisions to return the airplane to flight will be made by the FAA and only after Boeing has demonstrated to them that the solution is adequate," Kelly Nantel said. "We continue to investigate the cause of the short circuiting."
An FAA spokeswoman declined to comment on the reported meeting. Boeing declined comment on details of any battery fix it may be considering.
The logical solution for Boeing would be to install ceramic plates between each cell and add a vent to the battery box, Kiyoshi Kanamura, a professor at Tokyo Metropolitan University who has conducted research with several Japanese battery makers, said on Tuesday.
Earlier on Wednesday, the chairman of state-run Air India said Boeing is hopeful of getting the Dreamliner back in service by early April.
"They said that these planes should start flying again from early April. They can't be sure but they are hopeful," Rohit Nandan said.
Air India has six 787s and has ordered 21 more. The question of the airline seeking compensation from Boeing for the jet's problems would be taken up once the aircraft are flying again, Nandan said.
"We have been in close communication with our customers since this issue arose," a Boeing spokesman in Seattle said, regarding the issue of compensation. "The details of our conversations with customers are confidential."
The Boeing spokesman declined to address the details of the battery fix, but said it was making progress.
"Boeing has teams of hundreds of engineering and technical experts who are working around the clock with the sole focus of resolving the issue and returning the 787 fleet to flight status," he said. "Everyone is working to get to the answer as quickly as possible and good progress is being made."
On February 7, in its most recent official update on the 787, the NTSB said it had a "long road ahead" in its investigation of the lithium ion batteries.
Spokesmen for Japan's All Nippon Airways, which has the biggest fleet of 787s, and Japan Airlines said they were unaware of the suggested April schedule.
ANA and JAL have been most affected because they own around half of the lightweight, fuel-efficient jets in operation.