FAA grounds Dreamliners in U.S.

Federal officials say they are temporarily grounding Boeing's 787 Dreamliners until the risk of possible battery fires is addressed. (Jan. 16)

With its new plane ordered to stay on the ground, Boeing Co. confronts a full-fledged crisis as it struggles to regain the confidence of passengers and the airline customers who stood by the 787 Dreamliner during years of cost overruns and delivery delays.

A second major incident involving "a potential battery fire risk'' prompted the Federal Aviation Administration on Wednesday to temporarily ground all 787s operated by U.S. carriers until it is determined that the lithium-ion batteries on board are safe.

The order affects United Airlines, which is the first U.S. customer. The FAA gave no indication how soon the plane could resume flying.

The decision came the same day Japanese airlines grounded their 787s after an emergency landing and five days after the FAA and U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood declared that the flying public is safe on Dreamliners. When it offered those assurances Friday, however, the FAA also announced a comprehensive review of the 787's design, manufacture and assembly.

The grounding represents a significant setback for Chicago-based Boeing, which is marketing the fuel-efficient, mainly carbon-composite jetliner as a vision of the future of commercial passenger aviation. The development of the plane was marred by long production and delivery delays, but it is selling well and has customers around the world.

"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," Jim McNerney, Boeing's chairman and chief executive, said in a statement. He said Boeing is working with the FAA to find answers as quickly as possible.

Chicago-based United Airlines has six 787s, but it has been flying only one on flights between O'Hare International Airport and Houston. The airline said Wednesday night that it will accommodate customers on other planes. The domestic 787 flights were to end in late March, when United's first 787s were to begin serving international routes. 

United said it "will work closely with the FAA and Boeing on the technical review as we work toward restoring 787 service."

Foreign carriers are not affected by the FAA order, but LOT Polish Airlines canceled its inaugural flight celebration at O'Hare on Wednesday night, even before the flight landed from Warsaw.

"We just think it would be inappropriate to go ahead with the activities," said Frank Joost, regional sales director of the Americas for LOT. He described the FAA grounding of 787 flights as a "surprise."

LOT also canceled the Dreamliner's return flight to Warsaw. Passengers hoping to depart on the 9:55 p.m. flight said they were disappointed. Many were rebooked on Lufthansa through Munich.

Suzy Zaborek, 27, of Chicago was at Chicago O'Hare on Wednesday night waiting for her father to arrive from Poland aboard the 787. He came home early specifically to ride on the inaugural flight.

Zaborek had not been following the Dreamliner woes in recent weeks and the dramatic groundings on Wednesday.

"I'm glad I didn't know because I wouldn't have let him get on on of those," she said.

The FAA decision to ground all U.S.-registered 787s was the direct result of an in-flight incident involving a battery earlier in the day in Japan, FAA officials said. It followed another 787 battery fire that occurred Jan. 7 on the ground in Boston.

Both failures resulted in the release of flammable materials, heat damage, smoke and the potential for fire in the electrical compartments, the FAA said.

"Before further flight, operators of U.S.-registered Boeing 787 aircraft must demonstrate to the FAA that the batteries are safe," the regulatory agency said. The statement said the FAA will work with Boeing and airlines "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 it took drastic action because it determined that battery failures are "likely to exist or develop" in other planes.

Lithium-ion batteries can catch fire if they are overcharged, and the fires are difficult to extinguish, Boeing has previously said. Still, lithium-ion is the right choice for the 787, Boeing officials said.

Earlier Wednesday, Japan's two largest airlines grounded their fleets of 787s after one of the jets made an emergency landing and passengers were evacuated via emergency slides.

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