THE PROBLEM:  An investigator carries a damaged Dreamliner battery at Takamatsu airport in Japan. Picture: REUTERS
THE PROBLEM: An investigator carries a damaged Dreamliner battery at Takamatsu airport in Japan. Picture: REUTERS

YOU can safely bet that the engineers who built Boeing's new 787 Dreamliner are not getting much sleep in Seattle.

This week the US Federal Aviation Administration ordered US carriers that operate the high-tech airliner to ground all their 787s pending a thorough review of critical systems aboard the aircraft.

The FAA directive followed a grounding order by Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways, which both suspended 787 operations after a series of glitches. By Friday, the world's entire 787 fleet - some 50 aircraft - was on the ground.

Recent incidents include a fire in the battery pack of an auxiliary power unit of a Japan Airlines 787 at Logan International Airport in Boston and a fuel leak which delayed the departure of another Japan Airlines 787 from Boston to Tokyo.

Wednesday, however, marked a sea change in attitudes among airlines and aviation authorities after an All Nippon Airways 787 made an emergency landing at Takamatsu airport in western Japan after the crew reported smoke in the cockpit. The plane landed safely and the passengers and crew used the emergency slides to evacuate the aircraft but pictures of the airliner marooned on a taxiway then flashed around the world, adding to a growing media frenzy around the 787 and its problems.

The result, says Patrick Smith, an airline pilot whose blog is required reading for air travellers, will be a "too-intense media focus" with every minor malfunction making headlines, regardless of whether it is a design problem or not.

"[But] the latest emergency landing has, in my opinion, put things over the line," he said. "It's unlikely that a 787 would outright crash from a battery fire, but there's no denying the dangerousness of any onboard smoke or fire."

Mr Smith noted that this was the fourth such incident on the 787.

Following the fire in Boston and the emergency landing at Takamatsu, the spotlight is expected to fall on Boeing's decision to use powerful but unstable lithium-ion batteries in the Dreamliner. Aviation safety expert and former US National Transportation Safety Board investigator John Goglia has been widely quoted in the US press saying that problems with lithium batteries catching fire in laptops and cellphones are well known. Airlines already refuse to carry lithium batteries on passenger aircraft.

Linden Birns, MD of aviation consultancy Plane Talking, notes that when lithium batteries are an aircraft component "[they] and the systems they power would have to meet a predefined set of safety standards in order for the entire aircraft to achieve its airworthiness certification".

Without that certification, the aircraft would not be permitted to fly on anything other than test flights.

Meanwhile, the crisis continues to hammer Boeing's shares. Money reported the stock dipped a further 1% on Thursday following the FAA's grounding order.

Boeing, which has spent an estimated $32bin on the 787 project, said it remained confident that the aircraft was safe. The company noted the fleet had logged 50000 hours of flight time.

"Its in-service performance is on par with the industry's best-ever introduction into service - the Boeing 777," the company said.

The 787 is one of only a handful of aircraft to be grounded in the history of the commercial aviation "Jet Age".

The first, Britain's De Havilland Comet, was grounded after two of the type - one operated by South African Airways - crashed in mysterious circumstances over the Mediterranean, killing everybody on board. The cause was later attributed to metal fatigue in the airframe.

By the time engineers had solved the problems with the Comet, its potential market had been gobbled up by Boeing's 707, the four-engined airliner that ushered in the age of mass air travel. 

* This article was first published in Sunday Times: Business Times