Fifty of the world's most advanced and expensive flying machines are standing idle after America's Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued an order grounding the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. It issued an Emergency Airworthiness Directive "to prevent damage to critical systems and structures".
The move follows two incidents in which faulty lithium-ion batteries caused a small fire and smoke, both on 787s operated by Japanese carriers. One incident took place on the ground, while the other was in flight and led to an emergency landing and evacuation.
While the FAA's instruction is directly addressed only to United - the sole US operator of the Dreamliner - other aviation authorities and individual airlines followed normal procedure and also complied.
Boeing's chairman, Jim McNerney, said: "We are confident the 787 is safe and we stand behind its overall integrity. Boeing deeply regrets the impact that recent events have had on the operating schedules of our customers."
As engineers and safety officials try to remedy the perceived fire risk, the blame game has begun. Attention is focusing on Boeing's decision to outsource much of the work on the new jet. The Seattle Times columnist, Jon Talton, wrote: "I never understood the radical outsourcing of the 787 Dreamliner, an experiment that proved to be costly, inefficient and now dangerous."
The grounding has had an immediate effect on the operations of the eight airlines that have so far put the 787 into service. Qatar Airways, the only airline serving the UK with a Dreamliner, appears to have dropped its daily 787 link between Heathrow and Doha, with no alternative aircraft replacing it. The airline's chief executive, Akbar al-Baker, said: "Our staff are assisting all affected passengers to be accommodated on other flights."
Japan Airlines has cancelled all flights between Tokyo and San Diego for the next week, and replaced the 787 on other routes with Boeing 777s.Poland's LOT airline had just completed its first transatlantic service, from Warsaw to Chicago, when the order came through. It was forced to cancel the return trip.
Three UK airlines - British Airways, Thomson and Virgin Atlantic - have ordered the Dreamliner, but none have been delivered. Thomson is due to receive its first 787 next month, and to deploy it on transatlantic service in May from East Midlands, Gatwick, Glasgow and Manchester.
Some passengers booked to fly on the jet have expressed concern over the grounding. Arthur Cairns of Glasgow, who has a holiday booked in Florida flying on the first Dreamliner, said: "I am not happy with the present situation regarding safety. We are due to pay our balance in a fortnight but don't wish to travel on this plane."
A spokesman for Thomson said that the airline expected the 787 to be delivered and to enter service as planned, with no special dispensation for passengers already booked: "Normal booking conditions apply."