Boeing Dreamliner: US joins Japan in grounding 787s

Influential US regulator the FAA joins Japan in taking troubled planes out of service, followed by India and Chile

American regulators followed the lead of Japanese airlines by grounding the Boeing 787 Dreamliner on Wednesday night, saying a recent series of safety incidents meant urgent action was needed.

The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said it would require airlines to demonstrate that the plane's cutting-edge batteries were safe before allowing further flights. It has notified regulators in other countries of its action.

Japan's two leading airlines, All Nippon Airways (ANA) and Japan Airlines, had already grounded their fleets of Boeing 787s after one of the Dreamliner passenger jets made an emergency landing, the latest in a series of incidents that have heightened safety concerns over a plane that many see as the future of commercial aviation.

After the FAA announcement, India and Chile were the next countries to move. Air India spokesman K Swaminathan said India's aviation authority had directed the state airline to stop flying the Boeing planes on Thursday morning as it waits for an investigation by Indian regulators to take place. "Air India has temporarily ceased operation of its Dreamliners," Swaminathan said.

Chile's LAN airline said it was suspending flights of its three Dreamliners in compliance with the FAA directive.

The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and other air safety authorities around the world are likely to bring in similar measures now that the FAA has intervened. A spokesman for EASA told the Reuters news agency that it would usually follow safety directives if they were issued in a country where the aircraft was built. "In this case we have issued no airworthiness directive so far, so the FAA's directive should be endorsed by EASA," the spokesman said.

In one show of faith, Poland's LOT airlines sent one of its two Dreamliners on its maiden transatlantic flight from Warsaw to Chicago, to the reported disquiet of some passengers interviewed, although the plane was then grounded before the return leg of the flight. LOT is the only airline within the jurisdiction of EASA that has taken delivery of the 787 so far.

Other countries whose airlines use the 787 are Ethiopia and Qatar.

ANA said instruments aboard a domestic flight indicated a battery error, triggering emergency warnings. The incident was described by a transport ministry official as "highly serious" – language used in international safety circles as indicating that there could have been an accident. Boeing shares fell 2% in after-hours trading to $72.80 (£45.50) after the FAA announcement.

Its move came as American safety investigators were due to fly to Japan on Thursday to liaise with Japanese counterparts.

ANA and Japan Airlines have 24 Dreamliners between them, representing almost half of the 50 delivered by Boeing to airlines worldwide. Last week the FAA announced a full review of the revolutionary plane's design and manufacture after five incidents in five days on different planes in Japan and the US. These included a battery fire, fuel leakages from engines, and cracks developing in the cockpit windscreen.

Given the Dreamliners' significantly greater fuel efficiency than most models, airlines have been queuing up to buy a model that promises greener, quieter – and cheaper – aviation.

The aircraft's design also makes emerging long-haul destinations feasible with fewer passengers. In Britain, British Airways, Thomson and Virgin have placed orders, with BA expecting to operate the first of its 24 Dreamliners this year.

Production problems drastically held up delivery of the aircraft: it first entered service in late 2011, four years after the first 787 was unveiled. Issues have since been reported with the plane in India and Qatar. While analysts say such "teething problems" are not uncommon, Boeing will be acutely aware that rival Airbus has the new A350 coming to offer an alternative for airlines updating their fleets.

Aviation consultant John Strickland said: "This story is going to run on for Boeing. The key thing is that the Dreamliner 787 is so leading edge."

The Seattle-based manufacturer may be facing a repair bill to rival the £200m costs Airbus incurred as a result of cracks in the wings of the A380 in 2011. It said: "Boeing is aware of the diversion of a 787 operated by ANA to Takamatsu in western Japan. We will be working with our customer and the appropriate regulatory agencies."

•This article was amended on 17 January.


Gwyn Topham, transport correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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