FAA approves 'Dreamliner' battery fix, clearing way for return to service

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) moved close to lifting the three-month grounding of the Boeing 787 "Dreamliner" airplane Friday by approving a redesign of the aircraft's lithium battery.

U.S. airlines have been banned from flying the Boeing 787 on commercial flights since January, after a string of incidents in which the plane's lithium-ion batteries nearly caught fire.

The FAA said Friday that it has approved Boeing's modifications to the 787 battery system, clearing the way for the airplane's eventual return to service.

"A team of FAA certification specialists observed rigorous tests we required Boeing to perform and devoted weeks to reviewing detailed analysis of the design changes to reach this decision,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in a statement.

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Boeing's proposed changes to the 787 battery include improving the insulation system and inserting containment and venting systems to prevent short-circuiting and smoke.

The company's suggestions were approved for testing by the FAA last month, and the agency has now cleared the company to direct airlines to make the fixes.

Before 787s can be used on commercial flights again, however, Boeing has to issue written instructions to airlines that have purchased versions of the plane on how to modify its battery system to prevent fires.

The instructions will have to be approved by the FAA before the agency can issue a new "airworthiness directive" for the 787.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said he was confident the changes would resolve the problems.

“Safety of the traveling public is our number one priority. These changes to the 787 battery will ensure the safety of the aircraft and its passengers,” LaHood said in a statement.

The FAA's decision to ground the 787, which came just months after airlines had begun to use the large airplane, roiled the aviation industry.

Other international aviation agencies followed the FAA's lead, creating a worldwide ground stop on the 787. The aircraft was touted before its arrival as a revolutionary airplane, in part because of use of lithium-ion batteries to reduce energy consumption during flights.

Supporters of Boeing hailed Friday's announcement as the beginning of the end of the 787's prohibition on commercial flight.

“Now boarding: the Dreamliner’s return to flight," Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.) said in a statement after the announcement was made.

“My top priority throughout this investigation has been to make sure travelers can have confidence that the plane on which they are flying is safe," Larsen said.

However, he added that "the 787’s return to flight guarantees thousands of jobs at Boeing and at suppliers throughout northwest Washington."

Boeing is based in Illinois, but the company operates a large production facility near Seattle, Wash.