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Japanese airlines ground Boeing 787 fleet after emergency landing

An All Nippon Airways Boeing 787 sits at Takamatsu airport in Takamatsu, western Japan after it made an emergency landing Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013. (AP Photo/Kyodo News)

Aviation experts say Boeing will have to move fast to fix problems with their 787 Dreamliner.

Japan’s two major airlines have grounded their fleets of Boeing 787s after one of the jets operated by All Nippon Airways had to make an emergency landing Wednesday in western Japan. All 137 passengers and crew members were evacuated safely.

ANA officials said they were grounding all 17 of their 787s and Japan Airlines also suspended all of its 787 flights Wednesday. The two combined fly nearly half the 50 Dreamliners delivered to date by Boeing worldwide.

Officials say the ANA Dreamliner departed Yamaguchi Airport in Takamatsu in western Japan en route to Haneda Airport near Tokyo when instruments warned of a battery error, which triggered an emergency warning to pilots.

“There was a battery alert in the cockpit and there was an odd smell detected in the cockpit and cabin, and (the pilot) decided to make an emergency landing,” said ANA vice president Osamu Shinobe at a press conference where he bowed in apology.

Shinobe said the battery was the same type as one involved in a fire on another Dreamliner at Boston’s airport last week.

The incident is just the latest problem to plague the new jetliner. In just the past several weeks 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.

“We’ve seen the reports. We’re aware of the events and are working with our customer,” Boeing spokesman Mark Birtel said.

Aviation insider Richard Aboulafia tells KIRO Radio Boeing needs to get on this, and quickly, before this blows up into a major crisis.

“They need to move very fast on this before it becomes a full-fledged public relations disaster, even more so than it already has become.”

Many other aviation experts are now saying Boeing’s problems with the 787 have gone beyond the growing pains of a new airplane in its first 15 months of service. Tom Ballintine is a writer for Orient Aviation Magazine. “Things go wrong on a brand new airplane,” Ballintine said. “They get sorted-out, but this is more than that. There are too many things happening and in different areas of the aircraft to be simply teething problems.”

Japan’s NHK television network broadcast pictures of the stricken plane with its emergency escape slides deployed.

Aviation authorities in both Japan and the United States have opened investigations into the safety of the 787 after the recent mishaps. The National Transportation Safety Board is sending an investigator to Japan to study the burned-out battery.

At least one former Boeing engineer told KIRO Radio that he saw these problems coming years ago. Scott Schuldt worked for Boeing for 20 years. He left in 2005 as the Dreamliner was going into final design.

He believes the amount of outsourcing the company did with the engineering and design on this plane has played a role in its problems entering service. “I don’t like to get smug about it,” he said, “but I kind of saw it coming.” The FAA is looking at the outsourcing of work on this plane as part of its top-to-bottom review. “Nothing that goes wrong with the plane is a surprise,” Schuldt said.

Last week, Boeing said that outsourcing had nothing to do with the issues the plane is now experiencing.

ANA and JAL are expected to announce on Thursday whether it will continue to ground their fleets of Dreamliners.

KIRO Radio’s Chris Sullivan and’s Josh Kerns contributed to this report.

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