Nov 8, 2010

Another 72 hours before Qantas A380 services resume

Qantas continues to raise the bar when it comes to caution about the safety of the Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engines on its A380 fleet, and says the giant jets will not return to service fo

Ben Sandilands — Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands

Editor of Plane Talking

Qantas continues to raise the bar when it comes to caution about the safety of the Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engines on its A380 fleet, and says the giant jets will not return to service for at least another 72 hours or Thursday evening Australian time.

This is the crucial part of the media release the airline issued as CEO Alan Joyce gave interviews in Sydney this afternoon.

another 72

Joyce told reporters it had found oil leaks in the new engines that exceeded normal tolerance levels, but did not unequivocally link those oil links to the point of the mechanical failure which was the disintegration of the intermediate pressure turbine in the No2 inboard engine of the A380 operating QF 32 between Singapore and Sydney on Thursday last week.

Half of that component has been recovered from Batam Island, which was showered with debris from the jet shortly after it took off from Changi Airport.

One of the recurring questions arising from the very serious situation QF 32 found itself in is why Qantas is having issues with the Rolls-Royce engines on its A380s, yet Singapore Airlines with a larger and older fleet of them and Lufthansa with a younger smaller number of the jets, have not.

At this stage, we know that Qantas has found three more unsatisfactory Trent 900 engines while carrying out the same intensive examinations and tests that have been done on the Singaporean and German carrier fleets, where those operators have reportedly pulled one engine each for exhibiting the signs of potential problems because of oil leaks or other irregularities.

The Singapore Airlines fleet was back in the air within a day and apparently Lufthansa hardly missed a beat in its use of the jet. But all this tells us with certainty is that they have not discovered as grave a set of problems as Qantas. If they had they would hardly have wilfully breached the validity of their insurance cover by flying with engines in an unsafe or suspect condition.

Qantas stopped flying A380s because it was frightened by the circumstances of the QF 32 incident. But no such incident was experienced by the other two airlines, so it was for them a matter of ensuring that each of their A380s that was in service had engines that passed the new set of tests.
Qantas simply cannot risk a similar incident on another A380.

Could it be that Qantas did something ‘wrong’ with its A380 engines?

Maybe. But there is no evidence to support that being the case. It had complied with earlier airworthiness directives requiring other inspections of these engines. The ‘clustering’ of the Rolls-Royce Trent 900 issues on the Qantas fleet defies explanation at this stage, but raises the possibility that defective materials in its engines have in failing, revealed a vulnerability or defect in the engine design.

If, stress ‘if’, this is found to be the case Rolls-Royce and its customers are going to have to modify or replace their engines.

Passing current engines as fit for flight is one thing, but finding and fixing the underlying cause or causes of the faults that seriously compromised the safety of QF 32 is a critical longer term matter.

Why has Qantas been so unlucky in terms of flight scares lately?

It has in fact been incredibly lucky, as well as fortunate in having outstandingly good pilots. It was the quality of its pilots that calmly brought QF 32 to a safe stop in Singapore. It was luck, as in the spinning of a turbine disc rather than roulette wheel, that spat the sharp blade from the disintegrating engine through the wing where it did instead of right through the main fuel tank, or through the wall or floor of the cabin, or into contact with the horizontal stabiliser on the tail.

These are all locations which could have had more serious consequences for QF 32, or even destroyed it.


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7 thoughts on “Another 72 hours before Qantas A380 services resume

  1. Another 72 hours before Qantas A380 services resume – Crikey (blog) « HOA Management USA

    […] Another 72 hours before Qantas A380 services resumeCrikey (blog)… 900 engines on its A380 fleet, and says the giant jets will not return to service for at least another 72 hours or Thursday evening Australian time. …and more » […]

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  3. Mman

    This article:
    Indicates that Qantas uses a unique variant of the 900.

    Would this account for anything?

  4. Ben Sandilands


    It may. If there were no defective engines found at SQ and LH this would look like a lead. But the score is 4 at Qantas, and one each with the other Trent 900 users. But it’s definitely worth keeping this in mind.

  5. BH65

    Good Article Ben,

    The dice has been rolled a few times in the last 5 years, I guess the largest airline in the country that does big hours like Qantas will have its fair share of incidents.

    The problem with the Bottle explosion near Manila, this incident, the total electrical failure which LUCKILY occurred in VMC during the day within about half an hour of a very handy alternate, could have been catastrophic.

    Although the excellent skill of the pilots and the often forgotten cabin safety crew, recovered the aircraft, the events leading up to each proves old mother luck run its course, luckily for Qantas and the passengers, the dice rolled the right side up.

    You are right to point out that the turbine disc could have gone anywhere, and with the Bottle explosion, how close that departing bottle came to critical control cables. It was certainly not any management intervention that limited the potential outcome. But it WAS certainly excellent airmanship and piloting skills and highly trained cabin safety crew that once again saved the day. (on all the examples I have quoted)

    As always, the last line of defence in the “swiss cheese” are the pilots, and in picking up serious maintenance issues, the highly regarded engineers. What we as safety people have tried to emphasise over many years to management is to minimise the errors and threats before the last line of defence is required. Would any hazard identification or error identification have trapped the cause of the last few incidents or prevented them? Thats the unique part that safety plays, its very difficult to quantify what safety people do and what they may have prevented in their day to day activities. Its not like mathematics, in safety 1 + 1 doesnt always = 2. The variables and dynamics of aviation have the curious mixture of engineering, science and as we have seen, just plain luck. But, we should do our best to keep luck on the right side of the register? I think so, but with HR maniacs running Airlines, the Regulator and government, safety is another area that costs alot in terms of resources and time. Its getting harder to convince a young manager who wants to make an impression that because there hasnt been an accident that the airline is safe, and the way the horizon is looking, its going to get harder.

    I feel with the total downsizing of safety departments, that this is another example of pushing the envelope and seeing how far one can stretch the system. Its no secret that a number of experienced full time safety investigators left/were made redundant or not replaced from a large airline.

    It seems as though we are continually stacking the “recovery side of the Bow Tie” with the emphasis on reducing the consequences of the outcome, which is important, however, with removing valid controls, such as improving the safety system through highly regarded safety investigations that produce valid recommendations that are Independant of flight departments, I get the feeling that safety is becoming another avenue to “get to the top” in an airline.

    Safety Managers having KPI’s and budgets while necessary, is the slow start of the accountant types into the area of the once proud and independant Safety Departments who fiercely challenged Flight Operations with valid defensible recommendations, while not popular, probably saved lives. All these “traditional” safety investigators are slowly getting on, and the new culture of “embedding part-time investigators within the fleet” may not be the answer. I dont know the answer, but I dont like what we are seeing.

  6. BH65

    In finishing, its worth the debate with serious safety professionals which way safety departments should go, perhaps its worth a PhD or a serious academic study.

    Technology has seen huge strides forward in terms of safety, but I dont think any technology will replace the handling skills we saw recently, and the excellent training that got the crew and passengers home.

    My question is, how far do we eat into the “prevention controls side of the Bow Tie” before a “Top Event” before the HR types and KPI’s are met and satisfied?

  7. Banditry » Not from me, on Qantas and Rolls-Royce

    […] words, not mine. Although, much as I respect Ben Sandilands, this is the most convincing analysis I’ve read. Apart from the misuse of “begs the […]

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