Airlines shouldn't fly Boeing's 787 again until the jet maker can demonstrate the aircraft's lithium-ion batteries "are safe and in compliance," the Federal Aviation Administration said in a statement Wednesday. The agency didn't say how Boeing should accomplish that or how long the process could take.
The FAA's move set off a race to find and fix whatever has caused battery fires in two 787s since Jan. 7. Early Wednesday, All Nippon Airways Co. and Japan Airlines Co. grounded their 24 787s, almost half the Dreamliners in service, after warnings related to a battery forced pilots of an ANA domestic Japan flight to make an emergency landing.
"Nobody knows what the fix is because they don't know what the problem is," John Goglia, a former member of the U.S. Transportation Safety Board, said in an interview.
The FAA last ordered an entire model grounded in 1979, when it revoked certification of the Douglas DC-10 after inspections discovered wing damage similar to what led to a crash in Chicago that killed 271 people. The order was lifted a month later.
While the FAA's order affects only six planes, all flown by United Airlines, the U.S.-based agency's counterparts in Japan, India and Chile also ordered 787s in their countries grounded.
"Nothing we have seen would indicate this airplane is not safe," FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said last week, when the FAA announced it would begin a comprehensive review of the 787.
That review came after a lithium-ion battery on a Japan Airlines 787 caught fire while the jet was parked in Boston. Airport firefighters took 40 minutes to extinguish the battery fire. The battery onboard ANA's 787 was located in a different part of the aircraft, beneath the jet's nose, from the Japan Airlines' jet.
"The battery failures resulted in release of flammable electrolytes, heat damage and smoke on two Model 787 airplanes," the FAA said in a statement Wednesday. "These conditions, if not corrected, could result in damage to critical systems and structures, and the potential for fire in the electrical compartment."
Last week, Mike Sinnett, the chief engineer for Boeing's 787, expressed confidence in Boeing's decision to use a lithium-ion battery as well as in the 787's backup systems. The mostly composite 787 relies more heavily on electrical power than do conventional aluminum jets. Boeing had sought special permission from the FAA in 2007 to use lithium-ion batteries, given concerns over flammability.
"The lithium-ion battery was the right choice," Sinnett said last week. "Knowing what I know now, I'd still make the same choice."
Sinnett said then that Boeing was not looking into an alternative to the 787's battery. In a note Wednesday, analysts at Buckingham Research Group in New York suggested that Boeing already is in the process of updating the 787's batteries with newer technology.
Other Boeing woes
The Dreamliner's faults may go beyond the batteries, and it may take months to fully probe the plane's electrical systems, said Hiroharu Nakano, spokesman for Kyoto, Japan-based GS Yuasa Corp., maker of the plane's batteries.
The groundings come as Boeing increases deliveries of the 787 to get out from under the weight of seven delays to the jet's introduction. It's set to double 787 output this year to help fill remaining orders for about 800. Boeing has said it won't break even on the Dreamliner program until it delivers 1,100 787s.
That number could go up as Dreamliner customers seek compensation for additional delays while Boeing works to address the FAA's concerns. The company's stock fell 2.1 percent to $72.75 in trading after regular market hours, extending an earlier drop of 3.4 percent that marked the biggest decline since June 1.
Boeing stands behind the "overall integrity" of the 787, Jim McNerney, Boeing's CEO, said in a statement released Wednesday. The company is "working around the clock" with investigators and 787 customers to find answers as quickly as possible, he said.
"We will be taking every necessary step in the coming days to assure our customers and the traveling public of the 787's safety and to return the airplanes to service," McNerney said.
But Boeing faces a potential work stoppage in the Western Washington region if the company can't appease the union representing 22,950 engineers and technical workers. The company and union were expected to resume contract negotiations Thursday.
The FAA's order to ground the Dreamliners came in the form of an emergency airworthiness directive. While a step short of revoking an airplane's certificate to operate, it requires airlines or aircraft manufacturers to halt flights until they perform inspections or equipment changes, if the agency finds an "unsafe condition," according to U.S. law.
"I'll guarantee you there are lot of engineers who are not going to get a lot of sleep for the next few days," Goglia said.
787s in service
Boeing has delivered 50 of its new 787s to airlines around the world. Here's a look at who owns them:
All Nippon Airways, 17
Japan Airlines, 7
Air India, 6
United Continental Holdings Inc., U.S., 6
Qatar Airways, 5
Ethiopian Airlines, 4
LAN Airlines (Chile), 3
LOT Polish Airlines, 2
Source: Boeing Co., airlines