A Boeing 787 Dreamliner operated by United Airlines takes off Jan. 11 at Los Angeles International. / David McNew, Getty Images
Pauline Weaver was in no hurry to get back on a Boeing 787 Dreamliner - even before federal regulators grounded the plane.
The lawyer in Fremont, Calif., liked the plane's nifty windows and roomy restrooms. But she suffered a nine-hour flight delay that delayed the start of her vacation almost two weeks ago because of a mechanical problem with the plane.
"I don't think they are unsafe, but they definitely have 'bugs,'" says Weaver, a frequent flier. "I don't want another vacation ruined or delayed because of them."
Weaver and other fliers won't have much choice now but to wait.
Late Wednesday, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) ordered U.S. airlines to ground the Dreamliners in their fleets until the lithium ion batteries on the planes could be proved reliable.
And that's likely to cast further doubts about the plane in the minds of the aircraft's ultimate judges - fliers like Weaver who say they don't want to get on board the plane again until they know it's reliable.
The FAA's action came after Japan's two largest airlines grounded their combined fleets of the aircraft for safety checks because an All Nippon Airways (ANA) plane made an emergency landing when a cockpit message showed battery problems and the crew detected a burning smell.
The 24 Dreamliners flown by ANA and Japan Airlines represent nearly half the 50 that Boeing has delivered to airlines worldwide. In a reflection of how important the plane is to Boeing, more than 800 of the planes are on order.
Air India also said it has grounded its fleet of six Boeing 787 aircraft under orders from Indian aviation authorities. Air India spokesman K. Swaminathan said that India's aviation authority directed the state airline to stop flying the Boeing planes Thursday morning as it waits for an investigation by Indian regulatory authorities to take place.
In Europe on Thursday, the European Aviation Safety Agency followed suit, ordering Boeing 787 Dreamliners planes grounded. The EASA's order applies to all European carriers flying the 787 Dreamliner. At the moment, only Polsh airline LOT flies the airplane. Earlier, Chile's LAN airlines said it would suspend flights.
The FAA's announcement came after the stock market closed for the day. But Boeing shares closed down $2.60 Wednesday, at $74.34 per share. In pre-market trades on Thursday, Boeing shares were unchanged.
The Dreamliner is Boeing's newest and most technologically advanced jet, and the company is counting heavily on its success. The plane took to the skies 15 months ago with fanfare as it's the first commercial aircraft to be made largely of lightweight carbon composites rather than conventional aluminum and steel.
Airlines around the world have jumped at the chance to buy the fuel- and cost-efficient planes, which FAA Administrator Michael Huerta has called the future of aviation.
But the Dreamliner has had problems from the start, which resulted in its being three years late in delivery. Last month, United Airlines and Qatar Airways had to divert or ground planes because of electrical issues on an aircraft that relies heavily on electricity.
Boeing has said the 787 Dreamliner's reliability is "well above 90%," which is comparable to the same point in the 777's performance.
United, which has six Dreamliners and is the only U.S. carrier flying them, must find other planes for passengers on canceled flights.
Boeing remains confident
Boeing President Jim McNerney said late Wednesday that the company is working around the clock with customers, regulators and investigators to solve the problems.
"Boeing deeply regrets the impact that recent events have had on the operating schedules of our customers and the inconvenience to them and their passengers," McNerney says. "We are confident the 787 is safe, and we stand behind its overall integrity."
Many fliers are waiting for greater assurance before they will consider the plane a reliable one to fly.
"Unfortunately, right now, the uncertainty surrounding the Dreamliner makes it a plane that isn't one that you can book and expect to fly reliably," says travel analyst Henry Harteveldt of Hudson Crossing, which advises clients on how to improve their performance in the travel and hospitality industries.
Weaver arrived on Easter Island 36 hours late for her vacation because the LAN Airlines flight Jan. 5 from Los Angeles to Lima, Peru, didn't take off for nine hours until the problem with a Dreamliner was fixed. As a result, she missed her connecting flight and was diverted to Santiago, Chile.
Frequent traveler Terry Buchen had similar concerns about the plane even before the FAA took action. Buchen, a golf-course agronomist in Williamsburg, Va., is flying Friday from Portland, Ore., to Tokyo on a Boeing 767 rather than a Dreamliner.
"If I was going to fly on a Dreamliner for this trip, I would cancel it and re-book on another flight using 'proven winner' airplanes that have a good safety record," he says.
Battery failures reported
Because of its lightweight carbon composite material, the plane saves airlines jet fuel. Passengers like the airy cabins, large windows and higher humidity in the plane because that reduces the effects of jet lag.
But the plane also requires the use of greater electricity and thus needs the lithium ion batteries to power it.
The battery failures in Japan and Boston resulted in heat damage and smoke on the planes, according to FAA. In Boston, it took firefighters 40 minutes to put out the fire.
"These conditions, if not corrected, could result in damage to critical systems and structures, and the potential for fire in the electrical compartment," the FAA said.
Investigators from the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board are working with their Japanese counterparts to determine the cause of both battery problems.
"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," the FAA said.
Batteries aren't the plane's only problem. The FAA and Boeing announced a comprehensive review of the plane Friday because of a series of incidents:
On Jan. 8, a fuel leak on a Japan Airlines Dreamliner flight to Tokyo was detected before takeoff from Boston's Logan International Airport.
On Jan. 11, cracks were spotted in the cockpit window of a Dreamliner flown by All Nippon Airways from Tokyo to Matsuyama airport in Japan. The jet landed safely, but was grounded for repairs.
Also on Jan. 11, another ANA flight from Miyazaki, Japan, to Tokyo was delayed because of a minor oil leak from a generator in the plane's left engine. The flight arrived safely.
For now, some fliers are waiting on the sidelines.
Take Mark Isenberg of Oldsmar, Fla., for instance. He said he "would love to" get aboard the plane for the first time "once all the bugs are ironed out."
"It's obvious that this plane has had its difficulties from the beginning," Isenberg said. "I do realize that most new products have issues in the beginning. However, where lives could be at risk, it behooves Boeing to make sure."
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