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After another serious incident, 787s are grounded worldwide

Two weeks ago, when the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration announced it would conduct a comprehensive review of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner due to safety concerns, there was no talk of grounding the planes during that process. But after a serious incident with an All Nippon Airways 787 last week, a series of reactions has brought the Dreamliner fleet out of the skies worldwide.

An ANA 787 was on a domestic flight in Japan when the crew got an indication of a battery problem and noticed a smell of smoke in the cockpit. The plane made an emergency landing, and passengers were evacuated by sliding down emergency chutes. A battery problem was also discovered aboard a Japan Airlines 787 on the tarmac in Boston the previous week, with the fire department being called to check out the plane’s battery compartment.

After the latest incident, both ANA and Japan Airlines grounded all their 787s. Then the U.S. FAA issued an emergency airworthiness directive ordering operators of the Dreamliner to “temporarily cease operations” of the plane, citing “a potential battery fire risk.” The only U.S. carrier flying the 787 is United, which has half a dozen; but the U.S. order was followed by similar government groundings in Europe and India, effectively sidelining all 50 787s currently in service worldwide.

Besides United, JAL and ANA, other 787 operators include Ethiopian Airlines, Qatar Airways, LAN, LOT Polish and Air India.

It’s unusual for a brand-new aircraft type to be grounded, since it has to go through rigorous testing and inspections to win certification from government authorities. But the 787 was designed with a number of new and innovative technologies—including its electrical system, which controls more of the plane’s functions than on earlier generations of aircraft. And the 787’s electrical system relies on lithium-ion batteries—the type that passengers are not allowed to transport in their checked luggage.

According to the FAA, its grounding order was a direct result of the battery problems. “The battery failures resulted in release of flammable electrolytes, heat damage, and smoke on two Model 787 airplanes,” the agency said. “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 agency said it will work with Boring and United “to develop a corrective action plan to allow the U.S. 787 fleet to resume operations as quickly and safely as possible.”

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