US grounds Dreamliner fleet for safety checks

The United States has grounded its fleet of Boeing Dreamliners, as have aviation regulators in Europe, India and Japan, after an apparent battery problem forced one of All Nippon Airways' (ANA) jets to make an emergency landing on Wednesday.

The plane landed safely in Takamatsu, and all 137 passengers and crew were evacuated using the emergency slides, according to the airline. Several people were slightly injured during the evacuations.

"During the flight, [the pilots] had an error message saying 'battery problem'," said an ANA spokesman. "We are still investigating what exactly happened."

Local media said the pilots noticed smoke in the cockpit, but ANA would not comment on those reports. A passenger told Japan's NHK broadcaster that he "smelled something strange" as the plane was taking off.

But ANA and its rival Japan Airlines, both of them among Boeing's biggest customers for the jet, said they would ground their fleets pending safety checks. ANA has 17 Dreamliners in service, and Japan Airlines has seven.

Later on Wednesday, the Federal Aviation Administration grounded all US-registered Dreamliners to conduct a safety review. United Airlines is currently the only American carrier flying the planes.

On Thursday Qatar Airways also grounded its entire fleet of five Dreamliners until further notice, the company said in a statement.

It said it was following instructions from the US FAA and Qatar's Civil Aviation Authority.

A spokesman for the European aviation regulator said the agency would follow the FAA in grounding the aircraft. Poland's LOT Airlines is the only one to fly the plane, but several European airlines have 787s on order. India has also grounded its Dreamliners, as has Chile's LAN.

In a written statement released on Wednesday, Boeing's president and CEO, Jim McNerney, said the planes are still safe.

"We are confident the 787 is safe and we stand behind its overall integrity. We will be taking every necessary step in the coming days to assure our customers and the traveling public of the 787's safety and to return the airplanes to service," he said.

'We're aware of the events'

The groundings cap off a slew of recent problems with Boeing's new aircraft.

The sophisticated new plane, the world's first mainly carbon-composite airliner, suffered two fuel leaks, a battery fire, a wiring problem, brake computer glitch and cracked cockpit window last week.

Wednesday's flight bound for Haneda Airport near Tokyo left Yamaguchi airport in western Japan shortly after 8am local time [2300 GMT] but made an emergency landing less than an hour later.

Japan is the biggest market so far for the Dreamliner, with Japan Airlines and local rival All Nippon Airways flying 24 of the 50 Dreamliners delivered to date.

Japan's transport minister acknowledged that passenger confidence in Boeing's new jet is at stake, as both Japan and the United States have opened broad and open-ended investigations into the plane.

Japanese authorities said on Monday they would investigate fuel leaks on a 787 operated by Japan Airlines, and the US National Transportation Safety Board said later its agents would analyse the lithium-ion battery and burned wire bundles from a fire aboard another 787 at Boston's Logan airport last week.

Qantas Airways said on Wednesday that its orders for 15 Dreamliner jets was still on track, despite the problems. India's aviation regulator said it was reviewing the aircraft, but had no plans to ground the fleet.

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