787 probe far from complete, regulator "very concerned"

Thu Jan 24, 2013 7:57pm EST
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By Andrea Shalal-Esa and Jim Wolf

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - 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 aircraft.

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 January 7 fire in Boston, but not the underlying cause of the problem. She also said the agency would be looking at the design of the battery compartment area of the plane and whether the certification standards had been strong enough.

The comments were seen by some safety experts within the aerospace industry as a clear signal that this is no longer just a teething issue for the new plane.

That will raise questions about the financial impact for Boeing, which is still running its assembly lines and backing up aircraft to be delivered, and for airlines, many of which counted on getting the futuristic 787 for their expansion plans.

"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 the investigators had come up short in their hunt for the cause of the battery fire.   Continued...

National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah A. P. Hersman (C), standing with Director of the Office of Aviation Safety John DeLisi (L) and Director Office of Research and Engineering Joseph Kolly (R), briefs reporters on the NTSB's ongoing investigative work being done on the malfunctioning JAL Boeing 787 lithium ion battery at their labs in Washington, January 24, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst