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FAA to allow Boeing to resume 787 test flights

Grounded Boeing 787 jets
Boeing 787 jets are parked at Paine Field on Feb. 5 in Everett, Wash. Federal regulators say they are evaluating a Boeing request to conduct test flights of its 787 Dreamliners, which were grounded last month.Elaine Thompson / AP

The Federal Aviation Administration on Thursday agreed to permit Boeing to conduct test flights on its new-model 787s, which have been grounded since Jan. 16 following a battery fire in one plane and smoke in another.

As part of the ongoing investigation focused on the lithium-ion batteries in the 787, also known as the Dreamliner, the FAA agreed to allow Boeing to collect data about the battery and electrical systems while the aircraft is airborne.

"The traveling public's safety is our highest priority," said a statement from U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. "These test flights will be an important part of our efforts to ensure the safety of passengers and return these aircraft to service."

The test flights will be conducted through a special airworthiness certificate, which will require a pre-flight inspection of the batteries and cables and continuous monitoring of the batteries during the flight.

Boeing has marshaled a team of experts who are "working around the clock" to resolve the 787 battery issues and return the fleet to service, according to a statement from the company.

The FAA's decision does not affect the 50 Dreamliners that have already been delivered to customers and remain grounded.

The news comes as the National Transportation Safety Board continues to investigate what caused a fire on a Japan Airlines Boeing 787 while it was parked at a gate in Boston one month ago. Days later, an All Nippon Airlines 787 was forced to make an emergency landing after there was smoke on the plane as an error message indicated there was a problem with the battery.

No one was injured in either incident, but they were serious enough for the Federal Aviation Administration to take the unusual step of grounding the 787s until it could be assured that the batteries were safe.

In a briefing Thursday with reporters, NTSB Chair Deborah Hersman said that while they have a better idea of what went wrong inside the battery of Boeing's new-model 787, they still aren't sure what caused the problem.

Hersman said the NTSBis looking at the design and manufacture of the batteries used aboard the 787. That calls into question the process used to certify the safety of the aircraft in the first place.

Scott Hamilton, an aviation analyst with Leeham and Co., said the new information points to the possibility that the airplane may not be back in the skies until next month.

“At this point, what it means is that they have more questions than they have answers,” Hamilton said.

Hersman noted that when Boeing was given the OK to use the batteries, it said that the likelihood that a battery problem would cause smoke was around one in every 10 million flight hours.

“The 787 fleet has accumulated less than 100,000 flight hours, yet there have now been two battery events resulting in smoke less than two weeks apart on two different aircraft,” she said.

Hamilton, the aviation analyst, said that it’s not uncommon for assumptions about untested technology to be proven wrong in the aviation industry.

United Airlines is the only U.S. airline that is currently operating the 787, but the new-model plane has customers in Japan and elsewhere. Boeing also has a backlog of hundreds of orders from airlines around the world.

Those customers are starting to get antsy, and that could prove costly to Boeing. Japan Airlines has estimated that the 787 grounding has cost the company $8 million, according to Reuters, and it is among several airlines who have hinted they would ask Boeing to compensate them for the financial hit.

A Boeing executive told Reuters that the company would discuss compensation after the 787 gets back in the skies. Boeing spokesman Marc Birtel told NBC News that the company has been in communication with its customers since the issues arose but that those conversations were confidential.

Aviation experts say Boeing’s woes stem in large part from the fact that the 787 features such a wide array of new and groundbreaking technology. Those advances are expected to pay off in years to come, if Boeing is able to stay ahead of the competition, but the new systems are causing serious headaches right now.

The airplane relies on lighter composite materials instead of aluminum, and also uses electric systems instead of hydraulics that are more typically used on commercial airplanes.

Boeing delivered the first 787 in the fall of 2011, more than three years after it had originally promised that the airplane would be available. The development process was beset by delays, which experts said was prompted in part by a decision to outsource major chunks of development and manufacturing to outside partners.