November 11, 2010
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 fresh inspections for superjumbos using Rolls-Royce engines.
Qantas said on Thursday it expected 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 Rolls' 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 blow out, 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.
The European Aviation Safety Agency said in its latest airworthiness directive (AD) 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 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 cut capacity and halt orders.
The 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 AIR NOT GROUNDING A380S
Singapore Airlines said on Thursday it was in compliance with the safety directives but was not grounding the airliner.
Singapore Airlines spokesman Nicholas Ionides said the European directive meant more stringent checks on the Trent 900 engines which could lead to more time consumed between A380 flights.
"Where we need to, we will substitute A380 flights with a smaller aircraft in order to continue flying," he said. "We are not planning flight cancellations."
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.
JPMorgan analysts estimate that each week the A380s were on the ground would cost Qantas AUD$15 million - AUD$20 million (USD$15 million - USD$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.