The lithium-ion batteries in several Chevrolet Volts used for crash-testing caught fire in 2011. General Motors engineers eventually figured out that the fires were the result of a battery coolant leak that caused electrical shorts after side-impact crash tests. GM retrofitted the car with more steel to protect the battery. No fires were ever reported on real-world roads.
Jim McNerney, Boeing's chairman, president and CEO, said the company is working with the FAA to resolve the situation as quickly as possible.
"We are confident the 787 is safe and we stand behind its overall integrity," he said in a statement. "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."
Mike Sinnett, chief engineer on the 787, said last week that the plane's batteries have operated through a combined 1.3 million hours and never had an internal fault. He said they were built with multiple protections to ensure that failures "don't put the airplane at risk."
The lithium-ion design was chosen because it's the only type of battery that can take a large charge in a short amount of time. Rechargeable lithium batteries are most widely used to power consumer electronics such as laptops and cell phones. But they are also known to short-circuit and start fires that burn extremely hot and are difficult to put out.
Shipments of lithium batteries are suspected of causing or contributing to the severity of fires that caused two cargo jets to crash since 2010.
Sinnett said Boeing has long been aware of possible problems with lithium batteries. However, he said Boeing had designed the plane with special safety precautions to prevent a possible battery fire and to contain a fire to a small area should one occur.
Neither GS Yuasa Corp., the Japanese company that supplies the batteries for the 787, nor Thales, which makes the battery charging system, would comment on the recent troubles.
Boeing and its customers will need to move quickly to resolve the problem. The aircraft maker has booked orders for more than 800 of the planes from airlines around the world attracted by its increased fuel efficiency.
The FAA order had airlines, flight crews and passengers scrambling to figure out what to do next. Stanislaw Radzio, the captain of a LOT Polish Airlines 787 that landed at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago late Wednesday, told The Associated Press he wasn't sure when the plane would be heading back to Poland.
"We're grounded like everyone else," he said. "We are very unhappy with the situation."
He said he was told of the FAA decision during the flight from Warsaw. A captain and flight instructor at the Polish airline since 1999, Radzio said the 787 is the nicest plane he's ever flown.
A passenger on the flight, Taras Dukyn, a student at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said he was surprised when told of the grounding by reporters, but would be willing to fly the aircraft again if the problems were fixed.
"It's a really nice plane. Computers in every chair. It was comfortable, although I was a little hot," he said.
Freed reported from Minneapolis. Associated Press writers Herb McCann in Chicago, Elaine Kurtenbach and Yuri Kageyama in Tokyo, Kelvin Chan in Hong Kong and Scott Mayerowitz in New York contributed to this report.
Follow Joan Lowy at http://www.twitter.com/AP_Joan_Lowy
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.