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Citing fire risk, FAA grounds Dreamliners

Order follows emergency landing in Japan

A Japan Airlines flight took off from Boston early this month.

Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

A Japan Airlines flight took off from Boston early this month.

The Federal Aviation Administration on Wednesday grounded Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner because of a potential risk of fire from its batteries, following an emergency landing of an All Nippon plane in Japan caused by a malfunctioning battery.

That followed last week’s battery fire in an empty Japan Airlines Dreamliner in Boston.

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Both airlines grounded their fleet of 24 Dreamliners — nearly half the 787s delivered worldwide — immediately after the All Nippon event.

Japan Airlines had already planned to substitute the Boeing 777 on its popular nonstop route between Boston and Tokyo. The 777 will begin service from Boston Friday, and there will be no flights out of Logan International Airport on Thursday because Japan Airlines has only one such plane available to fly the route.

It is unclear how long the Dreamliners will be out of commission and how long the larger 777 will offer limited service to Tokyo from Logan. The airline has not said what its schedule will be after Friday.

To comply with the FAA directive, airlines must demonstrate Dreamliner batteries are safe before the planes can fly again. Technically, the FAA has authority over only the US fleet, which consists solely of United Airlines’ six 787s, but aviation authorities in other countries are bound by international agreements to take similar action.

The FAA will work with Boeing and the carriers to develop a plan to resolve the battery issue.

Launched in late 2011, the Dreamliner is Boeing’s newest and most technologically advanced jet, using high-energy-density lithium-ion batteries to power multiple systems. But the batteries are susceptible to quick, uncontrolled rises in temperature and are considered somewhat hazardous because the liquid inside them is flammable.

In two cases, the FAA said, failures of the batteries released flammable electrolytes and caused heat damage in each plane. The cause is under investigation.

The US agency had ordered a comprehensive review of the 787’s critical systems following the battery fire and a fuel leak in Boston, but had said the planes were safe to fly.

The Dreamliner has been plagued by issues. Aviation analysts had said that problems are to be expected with any new aircraft, especially one as advanced as the 787, which relies more than any other jet on electrical signals to help power the plane and is the first Boeing plane to use lithium-ion batteries.

But orders to ground a fleet are unusual, analysts say. The FAA did not provide any information about the last time that it did so.

Nervous passengers are already voicing concerns about flying on the Dreamliner, dubbing it the “Nightmareliner” and the “Doomliner.”

Gary Bickerstaffe, 28, of Manchester, England, was supposed to go on a late honeymoon trip to Cancun with his wife on a 787 in May but is thinking of changing his plans to avoid flying on the troubled aircraft. Bickerstaffe said he is already a nervous flier, having experienced an emergency landing in 2005, on a flight from Greece to England, and has no interest in going through another such episode.

“This is going to be a nightmare flight for me if I go ahead on it,” Bickerstaffe said. “We are flying trans-Atlantic, so where will we land if such incidents happen in the air like the two battery problems?”

Airline industry analysts do not expect the Dreamliner’s problems to escalate into widespread cancellations by passengers, however.

“It’s clearly a black eye for Boeing, and it’ll cost them some money,” said Daniel Kasper, a Boston aviation specialist at the economic litigation consulting firm Compass Lexecon. “People should be reassured that [the FAA is] putting safety first.”

The All Nippon flight made an emergency landing Wednesday after a cockpit message showed battery problems and a burning smell was detected in the cockpit and cabin.

Later, an inspection revealed leaking electrolyte and burn marks around the main battery.

The battery that caught fire on the Japan Airlines plane in Boston, which was in a different location, was used to start the auxiliary power unit when the vessel is on the ground and the engines are off.

If the battery was contaminated during manufacturing, foreign objects could be short-circuiting the battery and causing it to overheat, said John Hansman, an MIT aeronautics professor. There could also be a problem with the installation and wiring, or with the 787’s design, which relies heavily on the batteries for power, he said. Or there could have been an operational error.

The 777 being substituted on the Boston-Tokyo route has about 60 more seats than the 787. The route is popular, with planes 84 percent full, on average. But the market isn’t big enough to make the larger plane viable in the long term, said Hansman, which could make the route financially vulnerable if the Dreamliner remains grounded.

“If this goes on for a prolonged period of time,” Hansman said, “they’ll have to figure out if they’re going to continue the Boston service, or drop it.”

Material from Globe wire services was used in this report. Katie Johnston can be reached at kjohnston@globe.com.
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