"We do not expect to see fire events on board aircraft," said Deborah Hersman, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said at a Washington, D.C., news conference. "This is a very serious safety concern."
The NTSB opened an investigation into the Jan. 7 battery fire on a Japan Airlines 787 parked at Boston's Logan International Airport. On Jan. 11, the Federal Aviation Administration launched a comprehensive review of the 787's design, manufacture and assembly. Aviation and Boeing officials at the time expressed confidence in the safety of the Dreamliner.
On Jan. 15, an All Nippon Airways 787 made an emergency landing in Japan due to a battery malfunction. The FAA grounded 787s the following day. Authorities in Europe and elsewhere -- including Chile, Poland, Ethiopia, Qatar and India -- swiftly followed suit. Two Japanese airlines voluntarily had grounded their planes before FAA's order. Overall, 50 Dreamliners have been grounded worldwide.
Thursday's NTSB briefing addressed the investigation of the Boston fire, but the agency is working with counterparts in Japan, who are investigating the battery event on the All Nippon Airways plane.
Separately, Boeing issued a statement saying it 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. We are working this issue tirelessly in cooperation with our customers and the appropriate regulatory and investigative authorities. The safety of passengers and crew members who fly aboard Boeing airplanes is our highest priority."
The battery in the Japan Airlines fire experienced "thermal runaway" and short-circuiting, Hersman said. She described thermal runaway as an uncontrolled chemical reaction within the 787's lithium-ion battery. Short-circuiting occurs when there is an uncontrolled electrical current.
The NTSB is checking the batteries for manufacturing defects. GS Yuasa manufactured the lithium-ion batteries in Japan. Aviation observers have questioned the use of this type of battery, given that the FAA had to give Boeing special permission to use the batteries in the 787.
Hersman said investigators do not know what caused the thermal runaway or short-circuiting of the 787's battery on Jan. 7.
"These events should not happen as far as the design of the aircraft," Hersman said. "There are multiple systems to protect against an event like this. Those systems did not work as intended."
The groundings have been a nightmare for Boeing, which assembles the 787 in Everett and North Charleston, S.C. The company has orders for more than 800 of the planes from airlines around the world attracted by the 787's increased fuel efficiency. The aircraft maker has said it has stopped delivering new planes to customers but is continuing to build them.
United received its first six 787s last year and expects to get two more in the second half of this year, Jeff Smisek, the chairman, president, and CEO of United Continental Holdings, said Thursday in a call with reporters.
"All new aircraft types have issues, and the 787 is no different. We continue to have confidence in the aircraft and in Boeing's ability to fix the issues, just as they have done on every new aircraft they have produced," Smisek said.
The NTSB is also reviewing the FAA's certification process for the 787. Hersman did not know how long the NTSB investigation would take. The agency investigates transportation and pipeline accidents and makes recommendations, but regulatory authority resides with the FAA.
Some of the tests the NTSB is considering for the 787 battery could as long as a week to perform.
When the 787 will return to flight is unknown. The FAA will make that decision.
Later Thursday, Boeing issued the following statement:
Boeing welcomes the progress being made in the 787 investigation discussed today by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in Washington, D.C. The regulatory and investigative agencies in the U.S. and Japan have dedicated substantial resources to these investigations, and we appreciate their effort and leadership.The Associated Press contributed to this report. Michelle Dunlop: 425-339-3454; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Boeing continues to assist the NTSB and the other government agencies in the U.S. and Japan responsible for 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. We are working this issue tirelessly in cooperation with our customers and the appropriate regulatory and investigative authorities. The safety of passengers and crew members who fly aboard Boeing airplanes is our highest priority.
In order to ensure the integrity of the process and in adherence to international protocols that govern safety investigations, we are not permitted to comment directly on the ongoing investigations. Boeing is eager to see both investigative groups continue their work and determine the cause of these events, and we support their thorough resolution.
Boeing deeply regrets the impact that recent events have had on the operating schedules of our customers and their passengers.