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All Boeing Dreamliners grounded

Jan 18 2013 08:25 AFP
Boeing 787 Dreamliners

Workers assemble Boeing 787 Dreamliners in Washington in 2011. (AFP)

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Washington - Airlines grounded all of Boeing's new 787 Dreamliners in service on Thursday until a fire risk is fixed, as the US aerospace giant reeled from the high-tech plane's deepening woes.

Authorities in Chile, Ethiopia, Europe, India, Japan and Qatar followed the US Federal Aviation Administration in halting all 787 flights after a smoke alert forced a Japanese Dreamliner to make an emergency landing on Wednesday.

The US FAA, in grounding all US-registered 787 aircraft late Wednesday, highlighted "a potential battery fire risk in the 787" after a suspected leak emerged as the focus of inquiries into an All Nippon Airways emergency landing.

Last week, the FAA announced a comprehensive review of the 787 following a series of safety incidents.

Analysts said Boeing would have to handle the ANA incident with extreme care after making a big gamble with its next-generation plane.

The aircraft's flight systems rely heavily on electronics rather than the hydraulics used in older planes, and Boeing's use of lightweight composite materials is another breakthrough for airlines anxious to cut fuel costs.

Boeing chief executive Jim McNerney said the US aerospace giant "deeply regrets" the impact of recent events on airlines and passengers, and vowed to take "every necessary step" in concert with the FAA to resolve the problems.

But he stressed that "we are confident the 787 is safe and we stand behind its overall integrity."

The global groundings came as Boeing reclaimed its title as the world's biggest planemaker from European rival Airbus.

Airbus chief executive Fabrice Bregier said he hoped the cutting-edge 787 would be back in the air soon.

"I wish all the best to our colleague," Bregier told a news conference after the Toulouse, France-based posted 2012 orders below Boeing's.

"A plane is designed to fly. Even if a good 787 flies we have good solutions to face it. I don't bet on the difficulties of a competitor."

All of the 50 Dreamliners in operation around the world have now been grounded, with Ethiopian Airlines the last to say its four planes would undergo precautionary inspections despite not having suffered problems.

Still, some airlines were sticking with their orders and even speaking out in support of Boeing.

Top Mexican carrier Aeromexico said it was maintaining its order for 19 of the aircraft, noting in a statement that it "has absolute confidence in the Boeing company and all of its products."

Australian airline Qantas, meanwhile, said it was cutting its request for Dreamliner planes by one, but noted it had planned to do so before the jets were grounded and that it still had 14 on order.

Qantas said production of its first B787 aircraft had just begun and it was confident current technical issues would be resolved by Boeing before it took delivery in mid-2013.

Sector sentiment was summed up by Arun Mishra, India's civil aviation chief, who told AFP: "We will track the FAA enquiry into the Dreamliner. We can't say when we will allow it to fly again, it depends on when Boeing gives us satisfaction over safety concerns."

Japan is home to 24 Dreamliners and the government in Tokyo said it was taking no chances pending an investigation into whether the lithium-ion battery on the ANA plane had overheated.

Lithium-ion batteries are also widely used in consumer electronics such as laptops and mobile phones.

The powerful lithium-ion batteries used on the Dreamliner have emerged as the focus of concern in light of the ANA incident and another on a Japan Air Lines flight in the United States last week, with smoke reported on both planes.

Electrolyte leaks and burn marks were found on the battery's metal casing, ANA said. Kyodo News reported that officials from the Japan Transport Safety Board were working on the principle that it had overheated.

The batteries are made by Japanese firm GS Yuasa, one of many contractors in a complex global web that contributed to three years of delays before Boeing delivered its first 787 to ANA in 2011.

GS Yuasa -- whose share price plunged by 4.98% in Tokyo - defended its reputation for quality and warned the 787 investigation could take weeks.

"It is impossible to predict at this point how long it will take, in terms of days or weeks, because we must study the system and GS Yuasa is not the only player involved," a company spokesperson said.

GS Yuasa said it supplies its 787 batteries first to France's Thales Group, which then assembles an electric charging system for shipping to Boeing.

ANA said the particular battery involved had been installed in October, ahead of the expected two-year replacement cycle because of a fault with the previous one.

"Liquid leaked through the (forward battery compartment) room floor to the inside of the outer wall of the aircraft," Kyodo quoted investigator Hideyo Kosugi as saying.

Boeing shares fell 3.4% on Wednesday, before the FAA announcement, but picked up 1.2% on Thursday.

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