United is the only U.S. carrier flying the Boeing 787s, which have been touted as the planes of the future. However, several operated by overseas airlines have run into recent trouble, the latest because of a feared battery fire on a 787 today in Japan.
The FAA's so-called emergency airworthiness directive is a blow to Boeing, from the same government agency that only days ago at a news conference touted the Dreamliner as "safe." Even Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood went so far as to say he would have no issue flying on the plane.
Now, United will need to prove to the FAA that there is no battery fire risk on its six Dreamliners. An emergency airworthiness directive is one that requires an operator to fix or address any problem before flying again.
"Before further flight, operators of U.S.-registered Boeing 787 aircraft must demonstrate to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that the batteries are safe and in compliance," the FAA said in a statement today. "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."
United Airlines responded tonight with a statement: "United will immediately comply with the airworthiness directive and will work closely with the FAA and Boeing on the technical review as we work toward restoring 787 service. We will begin reaccommodating customers on alternate aircraft."
Jim McNerney, Boeing's chairman, president and CEO, expressed regret about any scheduling disruptions in a written statement, adding that Boeing was "confident the 787 is safe and we stand behind its overall integrity."
"The safety of passengers and crew members who fly aboard Boeing airplanes is our highest priority," McNerney said. "Boeing is committed to supporting the FAA and finding answers as quickly as possible. The company is working around the clock with its customers and the various regulatory and investigative authorities. We will make available the entire resources of The Boeing Company to assist."
There are some 50 Dreamliners flying in the world, mostly for Japanese airlines, but also for Polish and Chilean carriers.
Overseas operators are not directly affected by the FAA's emergency airworthiness directive -- but Japanese authorities grounded all of their 787s overnight after All Nippon Airways (ANA) said a battery warning light and a burning smell were detected in the cockpit and the cabin, forcing a Dreamliner, on a domestic flight, to land at Takamatsu Airport in Japan.
The plane landed safely about 45 minutes after it took off and all 128 passengers and eight crew members had to evacuate using the emergency chutes. Two people sustained minor injuries on their way down the chute, Osamu Shinobe, ANA senior executive vice president, told a news conference in Tokyo.
ANA and its rival, Japan Airlines (JAL), subsequently grounded their Dreamliner fleets. ANA operates 17 Dreamliner planes, while JAL has seven in service.
Both airlines said the Dreamliner fleet would remain grounded at least through Thursday.
ANA said the battery in question during today's incident was the same lithium-ion type battery that caught fire on board a JAL Dreamliner in Boston last week. Inspectors found liquid leaking from the battery today, and said it was "discolored."
Japan's transport ministry categorized the problem as a "serious incident" that could have led to an accident.
Even more shaken up than the passengers on the Japanese flight may be the reputation of America's largest plane manufacturer, Boeing.
Since the 787 -- with a body mostly made of carbon fiber -- was introduced, it's had one small problem after another. But the nagging battery issue, which caused an onboard fire at Boston's Logan Airport last week, was serious enough for the FAA to ground the plane.
"It's a rough couple weeks for Boeing and ANA," said John Hansman, an MIT professor of aeronautics and astronautics. "I think clearly in the short term this type of bad press has been tough for Boeing. I think in the long haul, this is a good airplane. It's in a good market."
Hansman said of the Japanese incident, "If this was an actual fire, that's a major problem. And it would be a major problem even if nothing happened over the past week."
The FAA ordered a comprehensive review of the 787's design at a news conference Jan. 11 with Boeing. But the agency assured the public that the 787s were safe to continue flying while it looked into the fleet's design and safety measures.
The Japanese Transport Ministry dispatched its own inspectors to Takamatsu Airport today. A spokesman said the Transport Safety Board and Civil Aviation Bureau will conduct separate investigations.
Manabu Tanaka, who was on the ANA flight today, said he smelled something burning about 20 minutes after takeoff.
"I knew the plane was new -- so I thought maybe the smell had something to do with that," Tanaka said. "All of a sudden, I felt the plane drop. It happened about two or three times. With the smell, and the turbulence I began to get really concerned."
MIT's Hansman said, "Clearly, people are very jumpy and they're nervous. I think that the review that's going on now will settle things down."
Japanese passenger Tanaka said he can't avoid 787 travel because he flies so much for business, but is "a little scared to board the Dreamliner, considering everything that happened."
A fire broke out Jan. 7 on an empty JAL Dreamliner at Boston's Logan Airport after a nonstop flight from Tokyo. It took firefighters 40 minutes to put out the blaze.
One day later, a different Dreamliner owned by JAL sprang a leak from its number-one engine right before takeoff from Logan, spilling about 40 gallons of fuel onto the runway. It had to be towed back to the gate before taking off later that day.
ANA canceled a domestic flight to Tokyo Jan. 9 after a computer wrongly indicated there was a problem with the Boeing 787's brakes.
A 3-foot-long crack appeared in the cockpit window of an ANA 787 flying in Japan Jan. 11.
Another JAL Dreamliner leaked fuel while undergoing tests at the airport near Tokyo Jan. 13. It was the same plane involved in the Jan. 8 incident in Boston.
No one was injured in any of those incidents, but JAL has followed ANA's lead and ordered its entire 787 feet grounded.
"As a result of the incident involving another airline's 787 in Japan today, to ensure safety, JAL has decided to cancel its 787 operations today," JAL said in a statement earlier today.