U.S. regulators Wednesday ordered airlines to stop flying their Boeing 787s until they can show they've fixed a fire risk linked to battery failures aboard the closely watched Dreamliners.
The move by the Federal Aviation Administration follows an emergency landing in Japan that prompted that country's two major airlines to ground their fleets of 787s, and a similar problem aboard a Dreamliner on the ground in Boston nine days earlier.
"The battery failures resulted in release of flammable electrolytes, heat damage, and smoke on two Model 787 airplanes," the FAA announced Wednesday evening. "The root cause of these failures is currently under investigation. These conditions, if not corrected, could result in damage to critical systems and structures, and the potential for fire in the electrical compartment."
The only U.S. carrier to operate the eagerly awaited, long-delayed jetliner is United Airlines, which said earlier Wednesday that it had inspected its fleet of six 787s and would continue flying them. United spokeswoman Christen David said Wednesday evening that the airline would comply with the order "and will work closely with the FAA and Boeing on the technical review."
The FAA noted that its directive also signals international aviation authorities to take "parallel action" regarding their own airlines.
Since July, the growing list of reported troubles aboard the Dreamliner include a fuel leak, an oil leak, two cracked engines, a damaged cockpit window and a battery problem. The FAA announced a safety review of the aircraft last week.
In the most serious incident so far, an All Nippon Airlines 787 with 129 people aboard made an emergency landing after a battery alarm Wednesday morning. Those on board reported a burning smell in the cabin, and an alarm indicated smoke in a forward electrical compartment.
Hours later, ANA and Japan Airlines announced that they were grounding their Dreamliners pending an investigation. A maintenance worker discovered an electrical fire aboard an empty Japan Airlines 787 slated for departure from Logan International Airport in Boston on January 7.
There was no immediate response from Boeing, which saw its stock take a beating after the incident in Japan. But Boeing chief engineer Mike Sinnett expressed confidence in the battery system after last week's incident in Boston, "I am 100% convinced the airplane is safe to fly. I fly on it all the time."
Asked last week whether he would consider grounding the jets, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said there was "nothing in the data" that suggested the Dreamliner was unsafe.
Longtime commercial pilot and industry analyst Patrick Smith said the battery issue did not appear to be a major problem, but called the FAA order "a positive and pro-active step."
"I don't think that it was dangerous for the plane to be flying, but it probably wasn't the best thing to be flying it on the heels of this latest emergency landing in Japan," Smith said.
"All airplanes have their teething problems, and this was trending in a bad direction," he added. "Now the authorities have said, 'Stop,' and that's a good thing."