US safety regulators are poised to approve within days a plan to allow Boeing to begin flight tests of the 787 Dreamliner with a fix for its volatile batteries, a critical step towards returning the grounded aircraft to service, two sources familiar with the matter said on Wednesday.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is expected to sign off on a "certification plan" allowing Boeing to carry out the flight tests to determine if authorities can lift a flight ban that sent shockwaves around the airline industry seven weeks ago.
"You could see the 'cert plan' approved in the next few days," one of the sources said. Both spoke on condition of anonymity as the discussions are confidential.
The FAA said it would announce the plan when approved, and US transport secretary Ray LaHood told the Wall Street Journal he wanted a "thorough review" before a final decision on resuming commercial flights for the passenger jet.
Boeing declined to comment on the FAA's timetable for flight tests. But spokesman Marc Birtel said: "The FAA has indicated they are evaluating our proposal for a permanent fix to address the 787 battery issue and we are encouraged by the progress being made toward resolving the issue and returning the 787 to flight."
Shares in GS Yuasa, the Japanese firm that makes lithium-ion batteries for the 787, jumped almost 11 per cent in Tokyo on Thursday, touching 11-month highs above ¥444.
Regulators grounded the 50 Dreamliners in use by airlines in mid-January after lithium-ion batteries burned aboard two planes - banning airlines from flying the 787 and stopping Boeing from delivering them. Although its factories continue to make the 787, Boeing is losing an estimated US$50 million a week while the planes are grounded.
On February 22, Boeing formally proposed battery design modifications and new physical protection systems to contain flammable materials. But it is not yet allowed to conduct flight tests of the system. The measures include a stronger, stainless steel battery containment box and a tube to vent fumes and heat outside the plane should a fire occur in flight.
Meanwhile, the National Transportation Safety Board is expected to issue an interim report on Thursday on the 787 battery fire that occurred at Boston's Logan International airport. The report is not expected to include analysis, recommendations for FAA action or a finding on what caused the fire. The second battery failure is being investigated by Japanese authorities.
The FAA's permission for test flights is only one step in an approval process that must contend with any political fallout from the NTSB findings and any potential political developments.