(Updates throughout with the FAA grounding U.S. 787s, and with comment from United Airlines.)
Boeing’s new 787 is a rather fraught aircraft at the moment. It carries large bundles of lithium batteries that are a known fire hazard, its windshield has suffered cracks, and U.S. regulators have begun an inquiry to figure out what’s going on. Amid that review, the Federal Aviation Administration on Wednesday ordered the grounding of U.S.-registered 787s, affecting the six that are in service with United Airlines (UAL).
For passengers, the question that really matters is: Will this plane kill you? The short answer: Probably not. You can die on any airplane—but one experiencing the kind of scrutiny the 787 has been receiving is possibly even safer to fly. Pilots and airlines are hypervigilant, considering that the Dreamliner is making headlines practically by the day.
The longer answer: This is a messy situation for Boeing (BA) and for aviation authorities, both of which have certified the plane as safe after years of development and extensive testing. Flying remains the safest mode of transport, by an enormous margin, with your chance of dying in an airplane accident minuscule. Statistically, you would need to board a random flight each day for more than 21,000 years before you die in a crash, according to Richard Kebabjian, who runs the site PlaneCrashInfo.com.
In Japan, the two largest airlines grounded their two dozen 787s on Wednesday after pilots on a domestic All Nippon Airways flight smelled smoke and saw a warning alert about the batteries. The lithium-ion batteries used on the 787 have drawn close scrutiny after one such pack caught fire Jan. 7 on a Japan Airlines jet in Boston.
The FAA said in a statement that the latest incident in Japan prompted its decision, which will affect only United as the sole U.S. airline that has received the plane so far. Other countries with airlines that fly the 787 may well decide to follow the FAA action as a safety precaution. “Before further flight, operators of U.S.-registered, Boeing 787 aircraft must demonstrate to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that the batteries are safe and in compliance,” the agency said in a statement.
Chicago-based United flies the 787 domestically and between Los Angeles and Tokyo. United spokeswoman Christen David said in an e-mail the airline would cover 787 flights with other aircraft: “United will immediately comply with the Airworthiness Directive and will work closely with the FAA and Boeing on the technical review as we work toward restoring 787 service.” Eight airlines have the 787 in their fleets.
To date, Boeing has chosen to keep its response to the problems brief and sparse, pending further investigation. “We are aware of the event and working with our customer” is the company’s standard reply when a new 787 incident arises. And for reporters, where there is smoke … Questions naturally arise about anything new, and the 787 is full of new stuff: carbon-fiber composites to make it lighter and more fuel-efficient, the batteries, and the advanced electrical systems they power. After so many months of tests on the ground and in the air, though, shouldn’t those questions already be answered?