Nightmareliner: The FAA Has Grounded All Boeing 787 Aircraft

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Earlier today, a Boeing 787 -- better known as the "Dreamliner" -- made an emergency landing at Takamatsu airport in western Japan after a burning smell was detected in the plane's cockpit and cabin, and a cockpit message indicated battery problems in the plane. That incident was only the latest mechanical problem for Boeing's touted-but-beleaguered aircraft. So, as a precautionary measure, Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines grounded the 24 Dreamliners in their fleets -- meaning that a hefty percentage of the 50 vehicles Boeing has thus far delivered worldwide are, at the moment, not operational. 

And now, the FAA just announced, the United States is following suit, grounding of all the 787s in the country. (Since United Airlines is the only operator using 787s at this point, the decision will directly affect only United's fleet.) Part of the concern was had to do with the fact that Boeing's problem's hit close to home: On January 7, a fire in JAL Dreamliner at Boston's Logan Airport prevented the plane from taking off -- resulting in, fortunately, no casualties, but resulting in many, many concerns about the planes' safety. Today's incident in Japan seems to have confirmed those fears.

The Dreamliner grounding will involve an investigation into the vehicles' overall safety -- and into the safety of the lithium ion batteries that seem to have been at fault in the previous (and, one hopes, only) Dreamliner incidents. 

Here, via The Verge, is the FAA's full statement on the grounding:

As a result of an in-flight, Boeing 787 battery incident earlier today in Japan, the FAA will issue an emergency airworthiness directive (AD) to address a potential battery fire risk in the 787 and require operators to temporarily cease operations. Before further flight, operators of U.S.-registered, Boeing 787 aircraft must demonstrate to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that the batteries are safe.

The FAA will work with the manufacturer and carriers to develop a corrective action plan to allow the U.S. 787 fleet to resume operations as quickly and safely as possible.The in-flight Japanese battery incident followed an earlier 787 battery incident that occurred on the ground in Boston on January 7, 2013. The AD is prompted by this second incident involving a lithium ion battery.

The battery failures resulted in release of flammable electrolytes, heat damage, and smoke on two Model 787 airplanes. 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.Last Friday, the FAA announced a comprehensive review of the 787's critical systems with the possibility of further action pending new data and information.

In addition to the continuing review of the aircraft's design, manufacture and assembly, the agency also will validate that 787 batteries and the battery system on the aircraft are in compliance with the special condition the agency issued as part of the aircraft's certification.

United Airlines is currently the only U.S. airline operating the 787, with six airplanes in service. When the FAA issues an airworthiness directive, it also alerts the international aviation community to the action so other civil aviation authorities can take parallel action to cover the fleets operating in their own countries.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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