TOKYO, Jan 16, 2013 - Japan’s two biggest airlines on Wednesday grounded all their Dreamliners in the most serious blow yet to Boeing’s troubled next-generation plane after an ANA flight was forced into an emergency landing.
The 787 Dreamliner has suffered more than a week of bad news that has prompted safety investigations by three national aviation regulators, although Boeing insists the highly fuel-efficient aircraft is safe.
All Nippon Airways – the world’s first carrier to receive the Dreamliner from Boeing after years of delays – said a battery problem triggered a cockpit error message that forced the pilots to land the plane in southwestern Japan.
ANA said instruments had detected smoke in a forward electrical compartment, and Japanese Transport Minister Akihiro Ota said it was a “serious incident that could have led to a serious accident”.
Both Ota’s ministry and the US Federal Aviation Administration broadened existing probes into the Dreamliner to encompass the incident. Authorities in India said they were starting their own investigation.
ANA and its rival Japan Airlines (JAL) – among Boeing’s biggest customers for the Dreamliner – said they would ground their entire 787 fleets pending safety checks.
ANA has 17 Dreamliners in operation and JAL has seven. Both have dozens more on order in deals worth billions of dollars. ANA said there was no change to plans to take delivery of 20 more this financial year.
Australia’s Qantas said it was sticking by an order for 15 Dreamliners for its Jetstar affiliate, and the new model also got a vote of confidence from Korean Air, which has ordered 10.
“Problems are bound to occur when new aircraft are being developed and put into operation. Recent problems involving the B787 are no different,” a Korean Air spokesman said.
The Dreamliner is seen as an aviation milestone with its use of lightweight composite materials and electronics, instead of aluminium and hydraulics.
Boeing says a total of 49 have been delivered to airlines and nearly 850 are on order.
Wednesday’s flight from Ube, in Japan’s far west, to Tokyo had 129 passengers and eight crew aboard when it diverted mid-flight to Takamatsu, on the island of Shikoku.
Police reported several “slight injuries” such as scratches after those aboard evacuated via emergency chutes, as fire trucks deployed.
One passenger was quoted by broadcaster NHK as saying he “smelled something strange” after take-off and feared the plane was going to crash.
Last week, there was a battery fire and smoke on an empty JAL-operated Dreamliner on the ground in the US city of Boston.
JAL said it involved the battery used for the Dreamliner’s auxiliary power unit, located at the rear of the plane. Wednesday’s incident involved the forward battery for the main power unit, ANA said.
The high-profile incidents are the latest setbacks after production glitches delayed delivery of the first plane to ANA by three years to 2011.
The problems bloomed last week with the fire in Boston, followed by a fuel leak on another JAL Dreamliner, also in Boston.
A cracked cockpit window then forced the cancellation of a Dreamliner flight in Japan before a JAL-operated plane suffered a fuel spill on Sunday at Tokyo’s Narita Airport.
On Friday the FAA in the United States announced an in-depth safety review of the 787′s “design, manufacture and assembly”. It said it would also be reviewing Wednesday’s emergency landing.
Boeing, which insists it has “complete confidence” in the plane, said after the forced landing: “We will be working with our customers and the appropriate regulatory agencies.”Hajime Tozaki, an aviation expert at Waseda University, said JAL and ANA had both bet heavily on the Dreamliner and could suffer if the recent spate of incidents represents anything more serious than teething trouble.
Tozaki said Boeing’s fierce rival Airbus had also been hit in the past by “minor troubles” with new aircraft, but added Japan’s two biggest airlines could be hammered if regulators ordered structural repairs.
“That would have a really grave impact because both JAL and ANA plan to put the aircraft into their European and American routes to compete with low-cost carriers,” Tozaki said.