Japan approves return to air of Boeing 787
Safety • Aircraft maker's biggest customers could complete fixes by end of May.
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Tokyo • Japan's transport minister said Friday the government will allow Japanese airlines to resume flying grounded Boeing 787s once they complete installation of systems to reduce fire risk in problematic lithium ion batteries.

The Japanese authorities formally approved Boeing's fixes to the batteries on its 787 Dreamliner jets, clearing the path for its biggest operators to begin flying the planes again following a grounding that began in January.

U.S. and European regulators have already approved Boeing's plans to add safety features to the 787's lithium-ion batteries that would minimize the odds that they would emit smoke or catch fire, after two units overheated on separate planes in January.

Late Friday, the Japanese Ministry of Transport followed suit, authorizing All Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines — which together own about half of the 50 Dreamliners delivered — to resume flights of a plane whose grounding has affected tens of thousands of passengers.

All Nippon said that teams of Boeing engineers had already started to replace batteries on all of its 17 Dreamliners and that fixes would take until the end of May to complete. The airline said it would start using the planes again for commercial flights when the fixes had been made to its entire fleet. Japan Airlines declined to speculate on how long the fixes would take.

All Nippon said its 787s would each undergo a test flight to "confirm that no battery-related failures occur during flight." The first test flight is scheduled for Sunday, the Tokyo-based airline said in a statement.

The airline will also install improved battery monitoring systems on its planes and put its 787 cockpit crews through additional in-flight training. After the planes are back in service, the airline will remove a sample of batteries to inspect to make sure the improvements are effective, All Nippon said.

All Nippon said it intended to set up a dedicated website to address passenger concerns about the safety of the 787, parts of which were manufactured at Boeing's operations in the Salt Lake Valley,.

U.S. and Japanese regulators have been investigating the Japanese-made batteries aboard the 787 after one caught fire aboard a parked plane in Boston operated by Japan Airlines and another emitted smoke during an All Nippon flight in Japan, forcing an emergency landing. The incidents prompted regulators to ground the entire 787 fleet.

Norihiro Goto, the head of the Japan Transport Safety Board, said this week that investigators remained unsure what had caused the batteries to overheat. But Japan was satisfied that Boeing had now considered all conceivable potential problems that could lead to a battery fire, Goto said.

Japanese airlines have been enthusiastic buyers of the 787, Boeing's latest-generation, fuel-efficient plane. It is the first passenger jet to use lithium-ion batteries, which are more powerful, easier to charge and lighter than older battery technologies. They have also proven to be prone to overheating, however.