* Regulator cites 'very serious air safety concern'
* Some tests could take weeks
* United says it still expects deliveries
By Andrea Shalal-Esa and Jim Wolf
WASHINGTON, Jan 24 U.S. safety regulators are
nowhere near finishing an investigation into a battery fire on
the Boeing Co 787 Dreamliner, a top official said on
Thursday, raising the prospect of a prolonged grounding for the
Airlines have canceled hundreds of flights in the eight days
since the plane was grounded, and Boeing has stopped deliveries
of newly built jets.
The full financial impact on the planemaker is still not
clear. Still, Boeing shares are actually up 1.3 percent since
regulators said the plane - full of high-tech innovations that
are supposed to be a model for future aviation - could not fly.
Deborah Hersman, chairman of the National Transportation
Safety Board, made clear that investigators have found a series
of "symptoms" in the battery damaged in a Jan. 7 fire in Boston,
but not the underlying cause of the problem.
"We are early in our investigation, we have a lot of
activities to undertake," Hersman told a news conference.
"This is an unprecedented event. We are very concerned. We
do not expect to see fire events on board aircraft. This is a
very serious air safety concern."
She rebuffed multiple questions on how long the
investigation would take, making clear it could be weeks or
more. She also would not say when the 787 would fly again, which
is in the hands of the Federal Aviation Administration.
Former NTSB Chairman Mark Rosenker said the briefing made it
clear that the investigators had come up short in their hunt for
the cause of the battery fire.
"It's going to take them longer," he said in an interview.
"Weeks, not days."
Boeing and its regulators have said they do not know when
the 787 will fly again. It has been grounded worldwide since a
plane by All Nippon Airways made an emergency landing
in Japan on Jan. 16 after a battery incident, which Hersman said
may or may not have been a fire.
That emergency landing came after a fire occurred on a Japan
Airlines Co Ltd 787 on the tarmac in Boston.
Boeing was not immediately available to comment on the
latest NTSB statement. France's Thales, which makes
the 787 battery system, declined to comment.
Other new planes had problems when they were introduced, but
not fires, which makes this situation stand out, Rosenker said.
"Fire is something you don't fool with," he said. "You've
got to understand that, particularly given the short period of
time the aircraft has been flying."
The NTSB and its Japanese equivalent are working together on
their probes, though Hersman again insisted the work was still
in the early stages.
"It is really very hard to tell at this point how long this
investigation will take. We have all hands on deck," she said.
"We're working as hard as we can to identify what the failure
mode is here and what corrective actions need to be taken."
The 787 program was already years behind schedule before
last week's grounding, which means Boeing cannot deliver newly
manufactured planes to customers.
That means customers like United Continental Holdings Inc
may have to wait even longer for planes on order. The
company's United Airlines already flies six Dreamliners.
"History teaches us that all new aircraft types have issues
and the 787 is no different," United Continental Chairman and
Chief Executive Jeff Smisek said during the carrier's earnings
conference call. "We continue to have confidence in the aircraft
and in Boeing's ability to fix the issues, just as they have
done on every other new aircraft model they've produced."
Smisek said Thursday the carrier still expects to take
delivery of two more 787s in the second half of the year.
Boeing has already delivered 50 of the 787s. Around half
have been in operation in Japan, but airlines in India, South
America, Poland, Qatar and Ethiopia are also flying the planes,
as is U.S. carrier United.
The grounding of the Dreamliner, an advanced
carbon-composite plane with a list price of $207 million, has
already forced hundreds of flight cancellations worldwide.
The head of Boeing's European rival Airbus said it
would study the 787 Dreamliner design review and make any
changes to its future A350 jetliner that may be needed as a
result of the U.S. findings.
"We believe so far we have a robust design, however we will
draw the lessons from the 787," Airbus Chief Executive Fabrice
Bregier told Reuters Television at the World Economic Forum in
"We will look at the recommendations and guidelines of the
FAA and if by chance we need to change it we have plenty of time
because this aircraft, the 350, will be delivered to our first
customers not before the second half of 2014 so it is not a
challenge and it is not a burden for us."
Billed as Europe's response to the Dreamliner, the A350 is
due to enter service next year using lithium-ion batteries but
without the same reliance on electrical systems as the 787,
something Airbus says will put less burden on the batteries.
However, Airbus has so far declined to comment on how it
would tackle a battery fire if one did break out on board.
One industry veteran said airline customers need absolute
certainty that Boeing and regulators have solved the problem.
"You don't need details here to understand why people are
terrified about the possibility of these batteries catching
fire," Virginia-based consultant Loren Thompson said.