January 17, 2013
Just days after voicing confidence in the airworthiness of the Boeing 787, federal regulators grounded the next-generation jets Wednesday, ordering the planemaker to show that batteries used onboard are safe.
For weeks, Boeing has had to defend its 787 Dreamliner's technical problems, ranging from fuel leaks, to an on-the-ground fire linked to a battery. But after an in-flight scare over a burning smell in the cockpit forced an All Nippon Airways flight to make an emergency landing Tuesday, the Chicago planemaker faces a crisis that could last days or far longer.
Late Wednesday, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) grounded the Boeing 787 because of potential fires from its lithium ion batteries. The order affected only United Airlines and its six Dreamliners because it is the only U.S. carrier that has them. But its action may prompt aviation authorities worldwide to ground the planes.
The FAA grounding could lead to major and costly repercussions for the revolutionary new model made from lighter-weight materials and designed to save airlines money in fuel expenses, analysts say.
"Boeing may have to rethink the battery system," said F. Carter Leake, aerospace senior equity research analyst at BB&T Capital Markets. And that could result in changes to the architecture of the 787s electrical systems and affect the energy efficiency of the plane, he said.
"Now you have this very nebulous situation," Leake said. "Planes are grounded. We're waiting on a fix and we don't know what the fix will be."
ANA and Japan Airlines grounded their 787s, which involved 24 planes, or close to half of the 50 787s that have been delivered.
The 787s already were under scrutiny. The FAA ordered a review of the Dreamliners' "critical systems" Friday after a series of problems, including a fire aboard a JAL 787 while it was on the ground and empty of passengers in Boston.
Even as they ordered the review, FAA officials and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said the 787s were safe to fly. LaHood repeated that assurance to reporters at a Washington luncheon Wednesday, hours before the grounding order, according to the Associated Press.
"Our people are the best, but we need to work with Boeing and to make sure everything we've done has been done correctly," he said.
The FAA's order requires U.S. airlines using the 787 to demonstrate that the batteries are safe.
"The battery failures resulted in the release of flammable electrolytes, heat damage and smoke on two model 787 airplanes," the FAA said. "The root cause of these failures is currently under investigation.
"The FAA will work with the manufacturer and carriers to develop a corrective action plan to allow the U.S. 787 fleet to resume operations as quickly and safely as possible," the FAA said.
"This means airlines will have to go through a very careful review, inspection and testing of the batteries themselves and circuitry and show they meet all design requirements," said Hans Weber, president of airline industry consultant Tecop International Inc. "They have to check wiring, run diagnostic tests."
In a statement from Boeing, company Chairman Jim McNerney said: "Boeing is committed to supporting the FAA and finding answers as quickly as possible. The company is working around the clock with its customers and the various regulatory and investigative authorities."
The statement continued, "We are confident the 787 is safe and we stand behind its overall integrity. 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. Boeing deeply regrets the impact that recent events have had on the operating schedules of our customers and the inconvenience to them and their passengers."
The recent problems could lead to "slower delivery, higher inventory and a potential change in the production rate planned for 2013," Morningstar Inc. aerospace and defense industry analyst Neal Dihora said, while declining to speculate on how long the planes may be grounded.
Leake thinks the FAA grounding will likely be a matter of days rather than months.
Airlines are expected to ask Boeing to make up any losses they suffer due to the grounding of the planes.
Boeing had planned to ramp up its production of the planes to 10 per month by the end of this year from five per month at the end of last year.
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