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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