In a rare move, the Federal Aviation Administration on Wednesday ordered all U.S.-operated Boeing 787 Dreamliners grounded over possible flaws in the plane's battery systems that could cause fires -- elevating the safety concerns over an aircraft that just five days earlier inaugurated a Japanese airline's highly touted service from San Jose to Tokyo.
The FAA said it would work with Boeing and U.S. air carriers to develop a plan allowing 787s to "resume operations as quickly and safely as possible." United Airlines is the only U.S. carrier currently flying 787s.
"This is almost unprecedented," said Robert Fiegl, chairman of the aeronautical science department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott,
Other countries are likely to follow the FAA's lead and ground 787s, he added. Boeing has delivered about 50 Dreamliners worldwide and has some 800 on order.
The latest blow to the aircraft, which is packed with cutting-edge technology, came as the San Jose delegation of All Nippon Airways launch flight to Tokyo made its way back to the Bay Area through San Francisco International Airport after the airline voluntarily grounded its entire fleet of Dreamliners.
ANA, the launch customer of the 787, shut down operations of the aircraft after one of its planes made an emergency landing in western Japan because of battery problems. Japan Airlines then announced
The Dreamliner's problems were a setback for Mineta San Jose International Airport, which was basking in last week's launch of the new five-day-a-week ANA Dreamliner service. Airport officials hoped it would lure more international flights to the newly remodeled airport.
On Wednesday, the airport issued a statement that the next ANA flight from San Jose to Tokyo's Narita International Airport is scheduled for Friday. But it could take investigators a lot longer to figure out what went wrong with the lithium-ion batteries the 787 relies on for much of its electricity, said Jianhua Liu, associate professor of electrical engineering at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University's Daytona Beach, Fla., campus. "The electronic systems are extremely sophisticated for this kind of aircraft," he said. "It could take a long time, more than weeks" to diagnose the problems.
The 787, which is made of lightweight composites instead of aluminum, is the first Boeing plane to use rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, which are much lighter than other airplane
"Lithium batteries are pretty safe as long as they are designed well, as long as there is a reliable system to monitor them and a backup system," Liu said.
It's not uncommon for problems to occur on new aircraft, and some have had far more serious problems than the 787, said Robert Herbst, a retired American Airlines pilot and aviation industry consultant who operates AirlineFinancials.com. For example, in November 2010, a midflight engine blowout on an A380 led Qantas Airways to ground its entire fleet of Airbus superjumbos for nearly a month.
"There is nothing unusual about this," he said of the recent 787 mishaps. "These things will continue to happen until they get a long history of flying it. They can't predict all the things that can go wrong on an airplane."
Still, investigators looking into the JAL 787 fire clearly saw something that raised concerns, Fiegl said.
"Their preliminary investigation found something they deemed to be an unacceptable level of risk to flight safety for that aircraft," he said. "Fire is a big deal."
At least four teams of investigators -- from the National Transportation Safety Board, the FAA, Boeing and the manufacturer of the battery -- will examine every facet of the 787's battery-powered electronic system, from the battery itself to software and everything that happened leading up to the fire, Fiegl said.
The San Jose delegation returned to the Bay Area on time but had to land some 35 miles up Highway 101 at San Francisco International. The group, which included city officials and business leaders, were funneled onto ANA and United Airlines' flights to SFO.
They took the grounding of ANA's Silicon Valley-bound flight in stride.
"In Silicon Valley, we are used to things not being perfect at first," said Silicon Valley Leadership Group CEO Carl Guardino, who played an instrumental role in bringing the new route to San Jose. "The key is when things happen, let people know and make sure no one's health and safety is in any way threatened. Then deal with it."
Marc Casto, president of San Jose-based Casto Travel, which handles corporate travel accounts for many Silicon Valley companies, was also a part of the delegation.
"These things happen on new planes," he said. "I am much happier to have a canceled flight than a crashed flight."
Contact John Boudreau at 408-278-3496; follow him at Twitter.com/svwriter.