A380 Anxiety: Searching for Blame in an Airbus Near-Disaster
Last week's blowout of an engine on an Airbus A380 after taking off from Singapore has raised fresh concerns about the superjumbo aircraft and cast doubt on the quality of the Rolls-Royce engines that some of them are equipped with.
November 4, 2010 could have been a great day for Airbus. For the first time in the 40-year history of the European aircraft manufacturer, it had finally enjoyed a spectacular triumph over Boeing, its American archrival. On that day, representatives from four Chinese airlines accompanying President Hu Jintao on a visit to France placed orders with the company worth roughly 14 billion ($19.7 billion). The order even surpassed the one placed by the Arab airline Emirates in early June for 32 of the A380 superjumbos.
Shortly before 10 a.m., Qantas Flight 32 took off from Singapore with 466 people on board for an almost eight-hour flight to Sydney, Australia. But roughly five minutes after becoming airborne, one of the aircraft's four engines suffered a blowout near the western Indonesian island of Batam. Smoldering parts of the engine's casing and the wing fell to the ground. Less than two hours later, after dumping large amounts of fuel in the air, the massive double-decker airplane made an emergency landing in Singapore.
The left wing bore two huge, gaping holes in a clear sign that sharp-edged pieces of metal from within the jet engine had been shot out. Given their mass and velocities exceeding those of a speeding bullet, fragments like these can have devastating consequences. In fact, pilots fear these so-called "uncontained engine failures," which are extremely rare these days, and regard them as one of the most dramatic types of incident that can occur during a flight. Last Thursday, it was only pure luck that the shrapnel did not pierce the fuselage and enter the flight cabin or ignite the fuel in tanks within the wing.
The landing itself was anything but routine -- especially since the steering mechanisms in the perforated wing had reportedly stopped functioning. Videos taken by passengers show that only half of the wing's spoilers, which help slow the aircraft by pressing it into the runway after touchdown, had been extended. Likewise, the pilots of the mammoth jet had apparently not been able to shut down the engine farthest out on the wing, which only finally came to a standstill after airport fire crews sprayed it with extinguishing foam.
Immediately following the incident, Qantas and Singapore Airlines temporarily grounded their A380 fleets. On Thursday evening, Lufthansa also announced that it had cancelled one of its scheduled A380 flights from Frankfurt to Johannesburg. At the same time, Airbus and Rolls-Royce, the engine's manufacturer, ordered additional inspections.
Euphoria and Anxiety
The fallout from the incident has been massive. When the markets closed last Friday, shares of the British engine maker had fallen almost 10 percent since the accident. Shares in European aerospace giant EADS, Airbus' parent company, had lost roughly 3 percent.
The near-catastrophe has also breathed new life into some of the anxieties that accompanied the delivery of the first aircraft, to Singapore Airlines, in late 2007. With room for up to 853 passengers, the A380 is the world's largest passenger plane. At the time, Airbus executives celebrated the gigantic airplane as a symbol of European engineering prowess. Nevertheless, some critics have said that it is irresponsible to transport so many people in a single aircraft and warn of the disastrous losses that would result if one of them were to crash.
Until last Thursday, it looked like the skeptics had been proven wrong. Things have admittedly not gone flawlessly for the 37 A380s currently serving in the fleets of Qantas, Emirates, Air France, Singapore Airlines and Lufthansa. Some of them have been temporarily withdrawn from service, whether for problems with fuel pumps, onboard computer failures and, in one case, a power outage in a kitchen. And, in March 2009, Emirates, the biggest purchaser of the A380, sent a note of heated protest to the Airbus management, urging it to resolve irritating technical defects plaguing the plane.
Nevertheless, after Airbus made a series of improvements to the aircraft, it wasn't long before the conflict was resolved. With every new A380 that took to the skies, the euphoria over this double-decker aircraft that boasted showers and sleeping cabins grew.
Rolls-Royce Faces Some Tough Questions
All that may now change. And the search for who bears ultimate responsibility for this dangerous incident may not just involve aviation experts, but scores of lawyers as well.
By the end of last week, one thing was already clear: If anyone will have to answer uncomfortable questions about the incident, it will be Rolls-Royce, whose Trent 900 engines are used in the versions of the A380 operated by Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines and Qantas.
Since introducing its largest jet engines, which tip the scales at six tons a piece, the conglomerate has been engaged in fierce competition with a joint venture between the US companies General Electric and Pratt & Whitney. Emirates and Air France opted to use the latter's GP7200 engines for their A380 fleets, which many experts view as being more economical -- in terms of both price and fuel consumption -- than the Rolls-Royce engines. Even so, the British company still managed to secure roughly half of the contracts in the much-contested market.
Nevertheless, there is one striking difference. Companies operating A380s outfitted with the American engines have reported far fewer problems with them than with the British-made engine. For example, last Friday, another Qantas jumbo jet, a Boeing 747, had to return to Singapore after experiencing problems with its Rolls-Royce engines.
Likewise, in September 2009, an A380 owned by Singapore Airlines carrying 450 passengers, had to make an emergency landing in Paris following a case of engine failure.
On August 6 this year, it was Lufthansa's turn to experience problems. Pilots on a flight from Tokyo to Frankfurt had determined that the oil pressure for one of the four Rolls-Royce engines on their A380 had fallen dangerously low. As a precaution, the flight crew opted to shut the engine down and proceeded to its destination using the other three engines. The fact that emergency vehicles were standing by when the plane landed was enough to raise some eyebrows locally. According to insiders, the malfunction was caused by a defective oil pump.
While all of these incidents attracted media notice, one has remained off the radar until now. According to information obtained by SPIEGEL, on Sept. 14, crew members and passengers on one A380 flight reported suddenly smelling oil in the cabin. The ventilation system had been pumping fumes from one of the engines into the cabin.
In order to make sure that passengers get the oxygen they need, the onboard climate-control system siphons it from the the engine compressors. Suspecting that one of the engines might be the source of the presumably hazardous vapors, the pilots determined which one of them was to blame by shutting each of their mechanisms for providing cabin oxygen one at a time and smelling to see if the vapors dissipated when it was off. Regarding the incident, Lufthansa will only say that none of the engines of its A380s has been "taken out of service owing to an oil smell." But one Airbus insider has posited that the smell could have been caused by residual oil following engine maintenance.
Not Just an Airbus Problem
Thus far, this series of problems with the Rolls-Royce engines has mostly affected planes manufactured by Airbus -- but not exclusively so. For example, on August 31, a Rolls-Royce engine on a Boeing 747 operated by Qantas exploded shortly after takeoff, leaving a hole in the engine casing. As was most recently the case, the aircraft was forced to return to and make an emergency landing at its departure airport -- in this case, San Francisco. Soon thereafter, a Qantas spokesman assured reporters that the protocol regarding intervals between routine maintenance have been, and continue to be, strictly adhered to.
By the time this incident occurred, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) had already mandated addition inspections of all A380s equipped with Rolls-Royce engines. The reason behind the directive had been unusual wear found on certain engine components, which might have also played a role in the most recent Qantas-Airbus incident.
Last week, a spokesman for Rolls-Royce stressed that security is the company's "number one priority" and that the company was working closely with the authorities and affected customers. At the same time, though, he noted that since the number of A380s outfitted with its Trent 900 engines is still relatively small, the company has only had limited chances to gather client feedback and information on the engine in operation.
Aviation experts are already speculating that even Qantas, which actually has a reputation for being particularly safe, might have had lapses in the maintenance of its A380 fleet. Last Friday, however, Qantas CEO Alan Joyce angrily rejected the charges, positing instead that "a material failure or some sort of design issue" was behind the near crash.
Moreover, Qantas also points out that the A380 that made an emergency landing in Singapore had just recently been serviced by Lufthansa technicians and that Rolls-Royce is itself responsible for keeping the engines in shape.
In the end, only the investigation currently being conducted will be able to determine who bears ultimate responsibility for the accident. And that could take weeks and possibly even months.
Until that happens, Airbus executives will also have to live with the suspicion that their showcase aircraft might not be as safe as has previously been assumed. Still, when it comes to the debacle in Singapore, of all concerned, they bear the least amount of blame. In recent weeks, the A380s owned by other airlines and those with the American engines have operated just as planned -- without a hitch.
Boeing Also Has Problems
Airbus chief Tom Enders and his colleagues will surely also find some comfort in the fact that Boeing, their main competitor, is also battling its own streak of bad luck. Just recently, mysterious vibrations in the freight model of the Boeing 747-8, a rival aircraft to their A380, have led the company to push back delivery of the first carriers for what is already the fourth time.
Just last August, Boeing was forced to postpone the delivery of its first so-called Dreamliner, to the Japanese airline All Nippon Airways (ANA), to the first quarter of 2011. At that time, one of the engines planned for the 787 suffered major damage during a test run in the British city of Derby.
The 787s will also be outfitted with Rolls-Royce's Trent 1000 engines, which are designed to be particularly fuel-efficient. The company has assured the public that the problems previously encountered with the engines were fixed long ago.
Translated from the German by Josh Ward
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