The federal government grounded Boeing’s newest and most technologically advanced jetliner Wednesday, declaring that the 787 cannot fly again until the risk of battery fires is addressed.
The Federal Aviation Administration’s emergency order affects only United Airlines, the lone U.S. carrier to operate 787s. United said it would put passengers on other aircraft and work closely with the FAA and Boeing to review its fleet of six Dreamliners.
The FAA took action on the same day that Japan’s two biggest airlines — which together fly almost half of the world’s 50 787s — voluntarily grounded them pending full safety checks. Boeing said it was working around the clock with investigators.
“We are confident the 787 is safe, and we stand behind its overall integrity,” Jim McNerney, company chairman, president and CEO, said in a statement late Wednesday.
The FAA decision was the latest setback for a plane that was supposed to set a new standard for jet travel but has been beset by one mishap after another, which now have grounded more than half the world’s fleet.
The latest trouble arose when pilots for Japan’s All Nippon Airways smelled something burning and received a cockpit message warning of battery problems while flying from Yamaguchi Ube airport in western Japan to Tokyo. They made an emergency landing at Takamatsu airport in western Japan, and passengers evacuated using inflatable slides.
An inspection found that a flammable liquid had leaked from the main lithium-ion battery, which is below and slightly behind the cockpit. Investigators found burn marks around the damage. Japan’s Kyodo News agency quoted Transport Ministry investigator Hideyo Kosugi as saying that the liquid leaked through the electrical room floor to the outside of the aircraft.
That followed a Jan. 7 battery fire on a parked Japan Airlines plane at Boston Logan International Airport that took firefighters 40 minutes to extinguish. Both incidents involved the same type of battery, raising worries that they may be connected and that the jet’s electrical problems are more dangerous than previously thought.
“Anytime you have a fire on board — whether it’s the battery that has caused it or a passenger that caused it or another electrical component — that’s a very a serious situation on an aircraft and something not to be taken lightly,” said Kevin Hiatt, president of the Flight Safety Foundation.
So far, no one has suggested that the plane’s fundamental design can’t be fixed. But it’s unclear how much will need to be changed. The remedy could range from relatively quick-and-easy improvements to more extensive changes that could delay deliveries just as Boeing is trying to speed production up from five planes per month to 10.
The 787 is the first plane to make extensive use of lithium-ion batteries, which have been the focus of concerns in the past for their potential to catch fire. The FAA issued a special rule for their use in the 787.
Boeing has booked orders for more than 800 of the planes from airlines around the world attracted by its increased fuel efficiency.
The jet’s lightweight design makes it more of a fuel-sipper, and it’s so lightweight in part because it uses electricity to do things that other airplanes do with hot air vented through internal ducts. So a 787 with electrical problems is like a minivan that won’t haul children — it goes to the heart of what the thing was built to do.