FAA grounds 787s, Japan Airlines to fly 777s on limited Boston-Tokyo route

The Federal Aviation Administration on Wednesday grounded the Boeing 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.

The All Nippon incident followed a battery fire in an empty Japan Airlines Dreamliner in Boston last week. Both airlines had grounded their fleet of 24 Dreamliners—nearly half the fleet delivered worldwide—immediately following the All Nippon event.

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

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

To comply with the FAA directive, airlines must demonstrate that the Dreamliner batteries are safe before they can begin flying again. The FAA technically has authority over only the US fleet, which consists of United Airlines’ six 787s, but aviation authorities in other countries are bound by international agreement to take similar action.

The FAA will work with Boeing and 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 these high-energy-density lithium ion 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 the failures of the batteries released flammable electrolytes and caused heat damage in each plane. The cause is under investigation.

The US agency had previously 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 since inception. Aviation analysts said problems are to be expected with any new aircraft, especially one as advanced as the 787, which relies more than any other modern jet on electrical signals to help power the plane and is the first Boeing plane to use lithium ion batteries.

Orders to ground a fleet are unusual, analysts say. The FAA did not provide information on the last time it did so.

Nervous passengers are already voicing concerns about flying on the Dreamliner, dubbing it the “Nightmareliner” and the “Doomliner.” Gary Bickerstaffe, a 28-year-old from Manchester, England, is supposed to go on a late honeymoon trip to Cancun with his wife on a 787 in May, but is now thinking of changing his plans to avoid flying the troubled aircraft. Bickerstaffe said he is already a nervous flier after experiencing an emergency landing in 2005, on a flight from Greece to England, and has no interest in going through another.

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

But airline industry analysts don’t expect the Dreamliner’s problems to escalate into widespread cancellations by passengers.

“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 was forced to make an emergency landing Wednesday after a cockpit message showed battery problems and a burning smell was detected in the cockpit and cabin. A later inspection of the plane 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. It could also be a problem with the installation and wiring, or with the 787 design, which relies heavily on the batteries for power, he said. Or it could be an operational error.

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