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Cracking up

August 2012

Inspection programmes for the global fleets of the Airbus A380 pose logistical and financial challenges to current and future operators

by Martin Rivers
[email protected]

On 4 November 2010, in the skies above the Indonesian island of Batam, one of the four engines powering an Airbus A380 operated by Australian flag carrier Qantas blew up mid-flight. The force of the explosion was so great that shrapnel from the Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engine punctured the wing, sent fuel gushing from two tanks, and disabled an array of vital flight control systems.

Despite malfunctioning hydraulics, limited reverse thrust and no anti-skid brakes, Captain Richard de Crespigny successfully landed Qantas Flight 32 at Singapore Changi Airport. None of the 440 passengers and 29 crew aboard was injured.

In the months that followed, air safety investigators branched out from focusing solely on the faulty engine to addressing a new issue of concern – the discovery of hairline cracks in the Qantas A380’s wings. Though not a contributing factor to the mid-air explosion, it quickly became apparent that these newly identified fissures – located on nine-inch aluminium brackets connecting the wing’s outer skin to its inner rib structures – warranted further scrutiny.

Following the subsequent discovery of a second type of wing rib crack in a different A380, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) in February mandated the inspection of all 67 of the double-decker jets in service at the time. The regulator sought to calm nerves by endorsing Airbus’ assessment that the cracks were of a “non-critical” nature. But with new fissures emerging across the global fleet, EASA in June upgraded its directive and instructed all A380 operators to carry out recurrent inspections every 560 flight cycles.

“This condition, if not detected and corrected, may reduce the structural integrity of the wing,” the regulator said when speculating on the potential long-term risks posed by the more dangerous fissures, dubbed “Type 2 cracks”.

For A380 operators present and future, the unwelcome discovery of these cracks has less to do with short-term safety concerns – which industry experts unanimously dismiss – and more to do with the financial and logistical headache that will accompany the repair work. At the time of writing, Airbus had delivered just 77 of the 257 A380s in its orderbook, and with each individual plane requiring 30,000 man-hours to be repaired – eight weeks of downtime in a single instalment – the backlog is certain to come under renewed strain.

The problem is of particular concern for the Gulf’s big three carriers – Emirates, Qatar Airways and Etihad – which respectively have 69, 10 and 10 of the aircraft on order. While the latter two have yet to receive their first A380s, Emirates is already the largest operator of the type in the world – deploying 21 of the $390 million aircraft across its route network.

“Of course we are not happy, but we have to live with it,” Emirates president Tim Clark told Bloomberg in June. The airline grounded several of its A380s for 42 days earlier in the year, he said, costing an estimated $90 million through lost revenue. But Clark added that Emirates is no longer pursuing compensation, insisting he simply wants the job done.

The repair bill for Airbus is already dauntingly high. Hans Peter Ring, outgoing chief financial officer of parent company EADS, has estimated that the total retrofitting bill for 2012 will reach €260 million ($326 million). While Emirates favours carrying out the repair work in single instalments, most operators are expected to stagger it across routine maintenance checks every 24 months. Though less disruptive for the airlines – requiring just a few days downtime each check – this phased approach will tie up Airbus’ engineers for years to come.

Still more frustratingly for the airframer, modifications to its wing production line are subject to a lengthy certification process, meaning that the first defect-free A380 will not be delivered until January 2014. All units produced in the interim will require the same fixes, bringing the total number of aircraft being retrofitted to about 120.

For Akbar al Baker, the outspoken chief executive of Qatar Airways, this imposition proved a step too far. The Doha-based carrier had been due to recieve its first A380 in October 2013, but following months of very public complaining al Baker secured new delivery slots from January 2014. “Qatar Airways insisted that Airbus provide us with the new certified wing for the A380, and Airbus kindly obliged,” al Baker confirmed at the Farnborough Air Show in July. “We will receive the A380 with the new wing, which will not require modification.”

Beyond the cost counting and wrangling with customers, Airbus has been more brinkmanship and cost-counting, though, Airbus has been more concerned with identifying the root cause of the wing rib cracks and ensuring that its retrofits offer a durable solution.

Following thorough investigations, the airframer determined that the affected brackets had been subjected to unforeseen stress during the manufacturing process in Broughton, Wales. Detailing its findings at a press conference in Toulouse in May, Airbus executive vice president for programmes Tom Williams revealed that inappropriate material – lightweight type-7449 aluminium – had been used for the brackets.

While embarrassing and costly for Airbus, the underlying defect was less alarming than some feared. Had the cracks been caused by stress from flying – rather than the manufacturing process – repairs would likely have entailed extensive remodelling. Instead, Airbus’ original design calculations remained valid, and a relatively simple fix involving the more robust type-7010 aluminium was deemed adequate. The defect had also been reassuringly isolated, affecting just a “handful” of the 4,000 brackets in each plane.

Williams did not hide the fact that Airbus lost potential customers due to the wing crack debacle. He acknowledged, too, that “assumptions” were wrongly made about the suitability of type-7449 aluminium based on its prevalence in other programmes.

But a simple count of A380 airworthiness directives – regulatory notices about safety deficiencies and remedies – underscores how problem-free the aircraft has been to date. In its first five years of service, the A380 received an average of nine such directives per year from EASA. That compares with an average of 21 annual notices over the lifetime of the Boeing 747, which is regulated by the US Federal Aviation Administration. The A380 remains one of the safest commercial airliners ever built.

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