Boeing 787 to Stay Grounded as U.S. Can’t Explain Fires

The top two U.S. aviation regulators said they don’t know what led to battery flaws that prompted them to ground Boeing Co.’s 787, and defended their decision to not let the plane fly until the cause is found.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Federal Aviation Administration chief Michael Huerta gave no indication yesterday that the Dreamliner will return to service soon, as regulators around the world try to figure out what triggered smoke and fire earlier this month on two Japanese airliners, one of which made an emergency landing.

“Our goal is to get this done as quickly as possible, but we must be confident that the problems are corrected before we can move forward,” LaHood said at a meeting of the Aero Club of Washington. The Transportation Department and the FAA “are working diligently with Boeing” to find a solution, LaHood said.

“We don’t know what caused these incidents yet,” Huerta told reporters at a briefing after LaHood’s remarks.

The FAA grounded the 787 on Jan. 16 after the emergency landing by an All Nippon Airways Co. plane on a domestic flight in Japan. A lithium-ion battery on the jet emitted fumes and became charred, making it the second similar incident in a little more than a week. Aviation regulators in other countries where airlines operate the 787 followed the FAA’s lead.

JAL Fire

A similar battery caught fire Jan. 7 on a Japan Airlines Co. 787 on the ground in Boston after passengers disembarked. The fire took 40 minutes to put out, according to a press release by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board.

ANA, the Tokyo-based carrier that was the first to fly the model, said today that operations by its 787s remain suspended until at least Jan. 31.

The FAA’s decision to ground the 787 was based on sketchy evidence and is unwarranted, former Continental Airlines Inc. Chief Executive Officer Gordon Bethune, who also was an executive at Boeing, said in an interview.

“Boeing is being punished for innovation because people don’t understand it,” Bethune said. “This airplane has been subject to more review and regulation than any other airplane in the world, and for the FAA to come back and ground it is absolutely ludicrous.”

The FAA’s order didn’t say what steps were necessary to ensure the batteries wouldn’t catch fire. The agency’s wide-ranging review of the 787, prompted by the initial fire in Boston and other unrelated incidents, is also continuing. That review began Jan. 11.

Boeing Cooperating

LaHood and Huerta, speaking to reporters after yesterday’s Aero Club remarks, defended the decision as necessary to ensure safety. They said the investigation and FAA’s review must be completed before officials can say more about what happened.

“We need to let them finish their work,” LaHood said of the team conducting the review. “These are expert people. They’ll get to the bottom of it and then we’ll let all of you know what they found out.”

The FAA’s order -- that airlines prove that the 787’s batteries are safe before the plane’s allowed to fly -- applied to six 787s operated by United Continental Holdings Inc. None of the 50 Dreamliners that were in service worldwide are now flying.

United CEO Jeff Smisek expressed confidence today in the Dreamliner.

‘Terrific Aircraft’

“The aircraft is a terrific aircraft and customers love the plane,” Smisek said on a conference call with analysts. “We too want to get the airplane up and flying safely. I’m confident that will occur, but I don’t know when it will occur. They will find a fix.”

Finding out what happened and taking corrective action is “the single most important priority” for Boeing, Mike Sinnett, the 787 project engineer, said on a conference call yesterday with participants at an aviation conference in Dublin.

Boeing has “hundreds of experts” working “pretty much around the clock,” Sinnett said, pledging to resolve the issue “as quickly as we can.”

Boeing is fully cooperating in the investigation and review, LaHood said.

LaHood and Huerta, who pronounced the jet safe when the broader review was announced, ordered the grounding because the ANA incident occurred while the plane was in the air, Huerta said.

Grounding Order

Asked whether the FAA hadn’t acted swiftly enough after the Boston fire, LaHood said the grounding order should convey how serious U.S. regulators are about ensuring safety.

“Whatever criticism anybody has is probably muted by the fact that we did that,” he said.

The NTSB today will discuss its findings to date on its investigation, the agency said in a news release.

All eight of the lithium-ion cells within the battery recovered in Boston were damaged. The safety board is in the process of examining each of them, it said yesterday.

Officials with the FAA and Japan’s transport ministry visited the Kyoto offices of Boeing’s battery supplier, GS Yuasa Corp., for a second day, and will conduct further sessions, Shigeru Takano, a director at the ministry’s Civil Aviation Bureau, said today in Tokyo.

France has also started investigating the battery incident, Masahiro Kudo, an aircraft accident investigator for the Japanese ministry’s transport safety board, told reporters in Tokyo yesterday. Two engineers from Thales SA are now in Japan to assist with the checks, he said. The batteries are part of an electrical power conversion system built by Thales.

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