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updated: 1/18/2013 6:44 AM

Boeing 787 incidents prompt first U.S. grounding in 34 years

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  • A line of 787 jets are parked Thursdayat Paine Field in Everett, Wash.

    A line of 787 jets are parked Thursdayat Paine Field in Everett, Wash.
    Associated Press

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U.S. regulators' decision to temporarily ground Boeing Co.'s 787 Dreamliner, their first move involving an entire model in 34 years, came five days after Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood proclaimed it safe.

The Federal Aviation Administration, which certified the plane in 2011, ordered flights on the 787 halted until airlines can show the plane's lithium-ion batteries "are safe and in compliance," according to an agency statement yesterday. It didn't say how they should accomplish that.

The agency's move set off a race to find and fix whatever caused battery fires in two 787s since Jan. 7. All Nippon Airways Co. and Japan Airlines Co. yesterday grounded their 24 787s, almost half the Dreamliners in service, after warnings related to a battery forced pilots of an ANA domestic 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 yesterday's U.S. order affects only six planes, all flown by United Continental Holdings Inc., the FAA's counterparts in Japan, India and Chile also ordered 787s in their countries grounded.

"We've become so safe in commercial aviation that the public expects perfection," John McGraw, a retired FAA official who served in the agency's safety and certification offices, said in an interview. "Because of that, the perception of a safety risk becomes even a bigger factor with a malfunction like this."

Two Fires

United will comply with the FAA's directive and work with the agency and Boeing "toward restoring 787 service," Christen David, a spokeswoman, said in an e-mail. Passengers on Dreamliner-flown routes will be transported on other planes, she said.

Before yesterday's ANA incident, the U.S. safety board was investigating a Jan. 7 fire in Boston aboard a Japan Airlines plane that had just arrived from Tokyo. A lithium-ion battery pack in the belly of the jet ignited and it took airport firefighters 40 minutes to extinguish, according to an NTSB press release.

The battery fire aboard the ANA 787 was on a different pack located beneath the nose.

Lithium Batteries

"The battery failures resulted in release of flammable electrolytes, heat damage, and smoke on two Model 787 airplanes," the FAA said in a statement yesterday.

"These conditions, if not corrected, could result in damage to critical systems and structures, and the potential for fire in the electrical compartment."

Boeing officials have said lithium-ion batteries are essential to generating the power the plane needs and recharging quickly enough. The company got regulators' permission to use lithium batteries in the jet in 2007, three years after U.S. passenger planes were barred from carrying non-rechargeable types as cargo because of their flammability.

The FAA's action indicates that the agency is worried that special safety conditions it imposed in 2007 haven't been met, McGraw, the retired FAA official, said.

"It probably means that the damage as a result of the meltdown was more than expected or got into an area that was not expected," said McGraw, who now runs an aviation consulting firm in Stafford, Virginia. The FAA also may have been concerned that two fires occurred in such a short period, he said.

Beyond Batteries

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 comes 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. There are 50 Dreamliners in service worldwide, according to the FAA, and Boeing has reported deliveries to eight customers.

Boeing lists a range for the 787-8 model, the one that's now in service, of 8,200 nautical miles (15,200 kilometers). It seats as many as 250 passengers, lists for $207 million and is aimed at airlines that want long-haul nonstop routes without resorting to a bigger 777 or a 747 jumbo jet.

Shares Fall

Boeing fell 1.9 percent to $72.90 at 6:30 p.m. in New York in trading after regular market hours, extending an earlier drop of 3.4 percent that marked the biggest decline since June 1.

The cost of insuring Boeing's debt from non-payment for five years rose by the most in 14 months. Credit-default swap contracts on the aircraft maker rose 7.4 basis points to 64.4 basis points in New York, according to data provider CMA. That's the biggest one day jump since November 2011, according to CMA, which is owned by McGraw-Hill Cos. and compiles prices quoted by dealers in the privately negotiated market.

U.S. regulators announced Jan. 11 they were conducting a review of the Dreamliner's design, manufacturing and assembly in the wake of the Japan Airlines fire. They portrayed the review as a process that could take several months, and LaHood and FAA chief Michael Huerta endorsed the plane's safety at a press conference.

'No Reservations'

"I believe this plane is safe and I would have absolutely no reservations of boarding one of these planes and taking a flight," LaHood said.

The Dreamliner conserves fuel by using five times more electricity than similar jets and by saving weight with a fuselage and wings made from composite materials, not aluminum.

Electricity on the Dreamliner powers the usual airliner fixtures, such as instruments and lighting, as well as touches that include dimmable windows in place of the traditional pull- down plastic shades. Boeing also opted to turn to electricity for functions such as de-icing the wings, instead of relying on hot, high-pressure air bled off from the engines.

The FAA didn't ground models such as Boeing's reliability- plagued 747 or Airbus SAS's A320 within two years of their introduction, according to accident and regulatory data. The 787 went into service in 2011.

Three months after European regulators in 1988 certified the A320, a single-aisle jet that has become the second-best selling model with 8,811 sold, pilots performing a demonstration at an airshow in France flew into a stand of trees, killing three people, according to the AviationSafetyNetwork, a web- based library of aviation accidents.

DC-10 Grounding

While the accident was blamed on pilot error, the A320's reputation suffered at least temporarily, said Bob van der Linden, a historian who is chairman of the aeronautics department at the Smithsonian Institution's Air and Space Museum.

The DC-10, a three-engine widebody that began service in 1971, also suffered an early accident that sullied its image.

Shortly after takeoff from Detroit in 1972, a cargo door on an American Airlines Inc. DC-10 burst open and air rushing out of the jet buckled its floor. Pilots were able to land safely. Investigators ruled that it was caused by a design flaw in the door.

Two years later, the same problem occurred on a Turkish Airlines DC-10 after it departed from Paris. This time the internal damage was so severe it crashed, killing all 346 people aboard, according to the AviationSafetyNetwork. The airline hadn't adopted the fix suggested by Douglas, French investigators found.

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.

--With assistance from Susanna Ray in Seattle, Mary Jane Credeur in Atlanta, Anna Mukai in Tokyo, Bernard Kohn, Jeff Plungis and Bob Drummond in Washington and Thomas Black in Dallas. Editors: Bernard Kohn, Bob Drummond

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