TOKYO Japan's two leading airlines grounded their fleets of Boeing 787s on Wednesday after one of the Dreamliner passenger jets made an emergency landing, heightening safety concerns over a plane many see as the future of commercial aviation.
All Nippon Airways Co said it was grounding all 17 of its 787s and Japan Airlines Co said it was suspending all flights scheduled for departure on Wednesday. The two carriers operate around half of the 50 Dreamliners delivered by Boeing to date.
"I think you're nearing the tipping point where they need to regard this as a serious crisis," said Richard Aboulafia, a senior analyst with the Teal Group in Fairfax, Virginia. "This is going to change people's perception of the aircraft if they don't act quickly."
ANA said instruments on domestic flight 692 to Haneda Airport near Tokyo from Yamaguchi in western Japan indicated a battery error, triggering emergency warnings to the pilots. The carrier said the battery was the same type as one that caused a fire on another Dreamliner at a U.S. airport last week.
All 129 passengers and eight crew were evacuated safely via the plane's inflatable chutes. At a news conference, ANA said a smell was detected in the cockpit and the cabin, and pilots received emergency warning of smoke in the forward electronic compartment.
The incident follows a series of mishaps for the new Dreamliner. The sophisticated plane, the world's first mainly carbon-composite airliner, has suffered fuel leaks, a battery fire, wiring problem, brake computer glitch and cracked cockpit window in recent days alone.
SMOKE ON BOARD
Flight 692 left Yamaguchi Airport shortly after 8 a.m. local time (2300 GMT Tuesday), but made an emergency landing in Takamatsu at 8:45 a.m. after smoke appeared in the cockpit, an Osaka airport authority spokesman said.
Records of the flight show the plane left 10 minutes after its scheduled departure time for a 65-minute flight, according to flight-tracking website Flightaware.com. About 18 minutes later, at 30,000 feet, it began a descent. It descended to 20,000 feet in about four minutes and landed about 16 minutes later.
Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said five people were slightly injured during the evacuation.
Boeing spokesman Marc Birtel told Reuters: "We've seen the reports, we're aware of the events and are working with our customer."
The Teal Group's Aboulafi said regulators could ground all 50 of the 787 planes now in service, while airlines may make the decision themselves. "They may want to protect their own brand images," he said.
Australia's Qantas Airways (QAN.AX) said its order for 15 Dreamliners remained on track, and its Jetstar subsidiary was due to take delivery of the first of the aircraft in the second half of this year. Qantas declined to comment further on the issues that have plagued the new light, fuel-efficient aircraft.
Last August, Qantas cancelled orders for 35 787-9 aircraft to cut costs after posting a full-year net loss for the first time in 17 years. It still has options and purchase rights for 50 of the planes from 2016. The Jetstar order is for 787-8s, the smaller variant of the wide-body, twin-engine jet.
India's aviation regulator said it was reviewing the Dreamliner's safety. State-owned Air India has six of the aircraft in service and more on order.
Shares of Dreamliner suppliers in Japan came under pressure on Wednesday, with Fuji Heavy Industries, GS Yuasa Corp -- which makes the plane's batteries -- Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, IHI and Toray Industries Inc down between 1.6 percent and 4.2 percent, while the benchmark Nikkei dropped 1.5 percent. ANA shares slipped 0.5 percent.
Japan's transport minister on Tuesday acknowledged that passenger confidence in the Dreamliner was at stake, as both Japan and the United States have opened broad and open-ended investigations into the plane after the recent incidents.
Japanese authorities said on Monday they would investigate fuel leaks on a JAL-operated 787, and the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said later its agents would analyse the lithium-ion battery and burned wire bundles from a fire aboard another JAL 787 at Boston's Logan Airport last week.
The NTSB said via Twitter late on Tuesday that it was gathering information on the ANA flight's emergency landing.
(Addtional reporting by Tim Kelly, Olivier Fabre, Kentaro Sugiyama and Alwyn Scott; Writing by Ian Geoghegan; Editing by Paul Tait and Alex Richardson)