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Troubles Continue For 787 Dreamliner With Groundings In Japan, U.S.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

There are new and bigger troubles today for the Boeing 787, the airplane known as the Dreamliner. Late today, the FAA grounded the U.S. fleet of 787s for safety checks. The grounding and inspection order will likely be implemented around the world. The move comes after two serious battery-related problems occurred on two different Dreamliners in the past 10 days. Here's NPR's Wendy Kaufman.

WENDY KAUFMAN, BYLINE: The electrical system on Boeing's new flagship airliner is now under intense scrutiny. The focus is on what the FAA describes as a potential battery fire risk. Planes must be inspected and, before they can return to service, must demonstrate the batteries are safe. United Airlines is the only U.S. carrier operating Boeing's new jet. It has six of them. Worldwide, there are 50 787s in service.

In the latest incident, an All Nippon Airlines jet took off for Tokyo on a domestic flight Wednesday morning. Fifteen minutes later, the cockpit display indicated a problem with the jet's main battery. Soon, a burning smell began to drift through the aircraft. The crew made an emergency landing, and all 137 people on board were evacuated.

After examining the battery in the forward compartment, ANA said the battery's blue cover had turned black as though it had burned. The 787 is the most technologically advanced and innovative aircraft in the world. It's electronics are far more complex than in previous airplanes. It's not surprising then to see problems crop up in the first year and a half of commercial flight. Indeed, problems are to be expected in any new airplane program. Still, aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia says...

RICHARD ABOULAFIA: This is way beyond normal problems. These are serious concerns that need to be address right away.

KAUFMAN: And that's what the FAA and probably aviation authorities around the world are doing now. To save weight while producing extra power, Boeing chose lithium ion batteries for use in the 787. Guy Norris, a senior editor at Aviation Week, says those batteries have a history of problems.

GUY NORRIS: It's a very energetic battery, which uses lithium inside of it. And the problem is that batteries of this nature have been known to ignite if they're either overcharged or if they fall undercharged or if they overheat.

KAUFMAN: It's a problem that Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration are well aware of. Veteran aviation safety expert Hans Weber says both Boeing and the FAA assumed a fire could occur, so Boeing had to prove any fire could be quickly and effectively contained. Weber adds that the FAA imposed special conditions on Boeing before approving the battery's use.

HANS WEBER: Which really means much more severe design requirements, much more extensive analysis, especially testing. They're much more extensive testing regimen.

KAUFMAN: But all that analysis and testing may not have been enough. Weber says if additional safety measures for the battery are necessary, they could be added and, in the most extreme case, Boeing could replace those batteries with a different type. Boeing currently has 800 orders on its books for the jet and so far aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia says, no airline customer has canceled because of safety concerns.

ABOULAFIA: But on the other hand, you never know where you're going to get to a tipping point where enough customers associate this plane with trouble and you might begin to see cancelations. We're not there yet, but if these keep up, you could see it.

KAUFMAN: Investigations by U.S. and Japanese officials are now underway. As for Boeing, the company has insisted its flagship jetliner is safe and that it's working with airlines and government officials to address the problems. Wendy Kaufman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Wendy Kaufman