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NTSB: 787 probe far from complete

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 plane. 

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. 

The Dreamliner 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 said it welcomed Thursday's briefing on the 787 investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board and said it continued to assist the NTSB and the other government agencies investigating two recent 787 incidents.

"The company has formed teams consisting of hundreds of engineering and technical experts who are working around the clock with the sole focus of resolving the issue and returning the 787 fleet to flight status," said Boeing spokesman John Dern.

"The safety of passengers and crew members who fly aboard Boeing airplanes is our highest priority," Dern said.

France's Thales, which makes the 787 battery system, declined to comment. 

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," Hersman 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." 

Series of delays
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. 

Competition from Airbus
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 Davos. 

"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. 

Additional reporting by Karen Jacobs in Atlanta, Tim Hepher in Paris and Axel Threlfall in Davos.