By Andrea Shalal-Esa and Anurag Kotoky
WASHINGTON/NEW DELHI (Reuters) - A senior Boeing Co
Ray Conner, who heads Boeing's commercial airplanes unit, will explain the proposed changes to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta on Friday, but the plans have already been vetted with lower level U.S. government officials, the source said.
If Huerta and U.S. 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 Boston 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 world's newest airliner dearly, compounding pressures caused by earlier delays in 787 deliveries.
On Wednesday, the chief executive of Australia's Qantas Airlines Ltd.
Analysts estimate the world's largest planemaker is missing out on about $200 million in delivery payments every month that the 787 remains grounded, while spending as much as $1 billion a month to keep its 787 production line running.
A second source familiar with Boeing's plans told Reuters that 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. <6674.T>.
"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 U.S. 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, told Reuters on Tuesday.
Earlier on Wednesday, the chairman of state-run Air India
"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 Dreamliners and has ordered 21 more. The question of the airline seeking compensation from Boeing for the jet's glitches 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 Dreamliner, the NTSB said it had a "long road ahead" in its investigation of the lithium ion batteries.
Spokesmen for Japan's All Nippon Airways Co Ltd (ANA) <9202.T>, which has the biggest fleet of Dreamliners, and Japan Airlines Co Ltd (JAL) <9201.T> 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 jetliners in operation as a strategic move to win market share from their U.S. and European rivals.
Boeing shares closed 13 cents higher at $74.78 on the New York Stock Exchange on Wednesday.
(Additional reporting by Bill Rigby in Seattle, Yoko Kubota and Mari Saito in Tokyo, Devidutta Tripathy in New Delhi, and Lincoln Feast in Sydney; Editing by Daniel Magnowski, Jim Marshall, Carol Bishopric, Richard Chang and Andrew Hay)