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NTSB still can't pinpoint cause of 787 battery fires

In its latest briefing on the problems of overheating batteries on the Boeing 787, the National Transportation Safety Board said last week it still hasn't identified the cause of the problem; meanwhile, airlines that fly the Dreamliner are faced with increasing losses and operational challenges as the probe continues and the planes remain grounded.

All Nippon Airways (ANA), which has 17 787s in its fleet, said last week that so far, it has canceled more than 1,200 flights due to the groundings, affecting more than 100,000 passengers. ANA said it has now suspended all 787 operations at least through the end of February.

Japan Airlines, which has seven Dreamliners, put the cost of its disrupted flight operations through March at $7.5 million. JAL also said the grounding of the 787s has forced it to put off the planned introduction of new Tokyo Narita-Helsinki service, which was supposed to begin February 25. Meanwhile, some observers were wondering if United Airlines will still be able to launch new Denver-Tokyo 787 service at the end of March as planned.

NTSB chairman Deborah Hersman said that the agency is still “weeks away” from coming to any firm conclusions in its investigation of the 787 battery system. So far, the agency has determined that the problem begins with a series of short-circuits in one of the lithium battery's eight cells, creating a snowballing chemical reaction that the NTSB describes as “thermal runaway.”

Hersman suggested at a briefing last week that the Federal Aviation Administration—which certifies all new aircraft—ought to take another look at its approval process for the 787's lithium batteries, a type that has never before been used in a commercial jet.

Meanwhile, the FAA has reportedly approved a request from Boeing to allow one 787 flight from a painting facility in Texas back to its Seattle plant, with no one except crew on board, but that does not involve any tests on the batteries.

Boeing engineers, meanwhile, are working on possible ways to contain any overheating problems in the batteries, but any new solutions they come up with would be subject to considerable testing in an approval process that could take a long time.

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