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Boeing Dreamliner problems could hinge on Japan

A Boeing 787 Dreamliner operated by All Nippon Airways (ANA) sits on the tarmac after an emergency landing at Takamatsu Airpirt in Takamatsu, west of Japan, on Jan. 16, 2013.

This story has been updated for news developments.

It could just be a matter of working out the kinks in the new technology, but after a week of safety scares with Boeing Dreamliners, today the Federal Aviation Administration ordered all the U.S. registered 787 planes grounded until they pass a safety inspection.

The order was the result of a "battery incident" that occured earlier today in Japan, according to an FAA statement. It will require operators to "temporarily cease operations" until they demonstrate that the batteries are safe.

The announcement came on the same day that Japan’s two biggest airlines grounded their 787 fleets for safety inspections. Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways have two-dozen 787s between them -- half the fleet of Dreamliners that are in service around the world. And big parts of the planes are made in Japan.

“No single country has a deeper relationship with the Dreamliner than Japan,” says aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia. “They were counting on this new technology to lower fares and routes and to revitalize their struggling air travel sector.”

Aboulafia adds that Japan is one customer the American aerospace industry wants to keep happy.

“The Japanese tend to go with U.S. combat aircraft, U.S. military planes in general, and with obviously U.S. jetliners up and down,” he explains. “There’s a real risk, though, that if they’re dissatisfied at some point, they begin to think of working with the Europeans more.”

So far Dreamliners have had battery problems, fuel leaks and fires, but industry consultant Michael Boyd says it’s not the first new plane to suffer from technical issues.

“It’s happened with every new type of airplane. The first 747s were a nightmare.  They had major problems, and they worked through them,” Boyd says.

Boyd adds that airlines won’t risk flying planes that could be dangerous -- especially not one so high-profile as the Dreamliner. “I would suspect this latest issue is one they just want to check out, and I think that’s out of an abundance of caution,” he says.

So far Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways cancelled dozens of 787 flights, and this afternoon Qatar Airlines canceled one out of London. Boeing would only say in a statement that that it’s working with the airlines and regulators.

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