Europe’s aviation regulator said fire from an oil leak was the likely cause of last week’s engine failure of a Qantas A380 plane and ordered stringent inspections on superjumbos using Rolls-Royce engines. Qantas says it expects its Airbus A380 fleet to remain grounded for at least another 48 hours as investigations continued into last week’s mid-air engine failure.
Singapore Airlines which also powers its A380 fleet with the Trent 900 engine, said it might need to substitute some of its A380s with smaller aircraft to meet the European directive for more stringent engine checks. The Airbus A380 is the world’s largest passenger aircraft and has been hit by safety concerns after last week’s engine blowout, where a Rolls-Royce engine partly disintegrated mid-flight and forced the Qantas plane to make an emergency landing.
“Our A380 aircraft will still be grounded for the next 48 hours. At this stage we have no firm update when the aircraft will be in the air,” a Qantas spokeswoman said. Airlines are now counting the potential financial impact of grounding planes and changing schedules, while aviation experts said the European directive involved a “major” safety inspection which would likely disrupt flight schedules.
Rolls-Royce shares have fallen about 10 percent since the Qantas mid-air incident a week ago. The European Aviation Safety Agency said in its latest airworthiness directive (AD) posted on its website that airlines using Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engines on A380 aircraft must conduct “repetitive inspections”. The Qantas investigation has focused on oil leaks inside the Rolls-Royce engines.
As a result, airlines would be required to carry out an extended “ground idle run” and inspections of parts of the engine. Inspections would be required for “on-wing” engines initially within 10 flight cycles. A flight cycle is typically one leg of an aircraft’s journey such as Sydney to Singapore. “It would be fair to characterise this as a fairly major inspection regime. It can be done in a number of hours, but you are not talking about a quick turnaround, like two hours, it’s like an overnight,” said an aviation source. “It would be difficult to see how this would not disrupt services, but only Singapore and Lufthansa can answer that question.”
The A380 engine troubles come as the global airline industry started recovering this year from the 2008 and 2009 economic downturn that drained travel demand and caused airlines to slash capacity and halt orders. The aviation industry was also growing more confident as airlines in emerging markets stepped up to buy. Qantas said on Thursday its six A380s would remain grounded for the time being and it was already complying with the new European directive which would now have to be adhered to by other airlines. Qantas also announced an updated schedule for its international network utilising its 250 aircraft. The airline said there would be minimal disruption to passengers, regardless of when its A380 re-entered service as a result.
Singapore Airlines said yesterday it was in compliance with the safety directives but was not grounding the planes and all its flights were continuing. There were also no plans to change its A380 orders. A Singapore Airlines spokesman said the European directive meant more stringent checks on the Trent 900 engines but it would swap planes on some routes to maintain flight schedules. “Sure there will be additional cost involved but we are not at the point where we are even looking at cost. We are not even talking about that right now, because this is a fluid situation still and we are working to manage it from an operational stand point,” he said.
Singapore Airlines has 11 A380s in service. It said on Wednesday it would replace engines on three of its A380 planes after finding oil stains on them. Qantas shares closed 2.5 percent higher in a firmer overall market. Singapore Airlines shares were down 0.6 percent at 0557 GMT. JPMorgan analysts estimate that a week the A380s were on the ground would cost Qantas A$15-A$20 million ($15-$20 million) in revenue. Other aviation experts said the checks ordered by Europe could take hours rather than days but would lead to flight disruptions.
“This is very precautionary; what they’re doing is taking the most stringent safety requirements until they fully understand the problem — and it’s possible Qantas will still refuse to fly the plan in the interim,” said Professor Jason Middleton at the University of New South Wales.