Qantas is yet to seek CASA approval for its plans to resume A380 flights between Los Angeles and Australia on or about January 17.
It has final submissions from engine maker Rolls-Royce on the suitability of using its Trent 900 engines at a full 72,000 lbs thrust rating from LAX, but is still going over them in fine detail.
However behind the scenes there are even more serious matters in motion, starting with doubts about the credibility of EASA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which certified the Rolls-Royce Trent 900 suite of engines for use on the giant Airbus, (the alternative being the US Engine Alliance suite made by a joint venture between GE and Pratt & Whitney).
It is obvious from the number of faulty engines now detected among the RR Trent 900 inventory that the engine had issues that EASA should have identified and acted upon in the certification testing.
EASA by definition failed in its obligations by certifying an engine so seriously compromised that it nearly caused massive loss of life on November 4, when one of them disintegrated on the A380 operating QF 32 shortly after it left Singapore for Sydney, putting all 469 persons onboard in grave peril.
Qantas CEO Alan Joyce and his management team had the grim and grueling task of trying to monitor the stricken jet for almost two hours before it successfully landed back at Changi Airport, all the time faced with the possibility that the A380 and those onboard would be lost.
This is not however the only reason it has taken Qantas so long to settle on a re-start date for the trans Pacific flights, which unlike the Sydney-Singapore-London flights which resumed on November 28, require the engines to operate at a higher thrust level in order to depart LAX with a commercial payload.
Qantas has substantial information about Rolls-Royce’s performance in hyping the engine, in claiming that it was based extensively on the proven excellence of earlier Trent family designs, and in its astonishing failure to communicate a series of modifications made to newer versions of the engine.
The intensity with which Qantas has pursued detailed technical explanations and assurances from Rolls-Royce that it can now resume using Trent 900 engines with 72,000 lbs thrust available rather than the usual 70,000 lbs per unit has not been based on accepting the manufacturer’s words, but in making it prove what it claims to be the situation with the latest C series engines to the satisfaction of its engineers and technical advisers.
The groundings have cost Qantas an appalling but undisclosed amount in lost business and alternative arrangements, but it is spending the money determined to retrieve all of it from Rolls-Royce.
Consider this. Rolls-Royce was providing engines that Airbus was hanging on new partly finished A380s that incorporated the latest modifications, which in one disclosure it claimed had nothing to do with specific deficiencies in the earlier versions that caused the QF32 incident, without replacing those earlier versions which were regularly flying hundreds of passengers at a time on a multi daily basis for Singapore Airlines, Lufthansa and Qantas.
What sort of dark logic was at work here? Were they gambling that nothing would happen before they made the modular changes as routine upgrades at a time that suited them? Rolls-Royce has simultaneously claimed that the module changes in the C series engines will prevent a repeat of the QF32 incident, but that the changes were not a response to the known problems that were to manifest themselves on that flight.
Rolls-Royce didn’t even turn up in the Federal Court to defend itself when Qantas successfully took out an injunction and filed a preliminary statement of claim against them two months ago.
QF32 was only saved by an element of luck as to where the wing rather than the pressurized cabin was pierced by debris, and by the calm and methodological response of the experienced Qantas pilots on board to a situation never envisaged in any of their training exercises.
Yet according to both Qantas, and Airbus, Rolls-Royce kept them uninformed as to the detail of the changes it saw fit to make on new A380s, but not those in service before the QF32 incident.
Which raises of course, another question as to how Airbus could have failed as the manufacturer to scrutinize everything that Rolls-Royce was doing to such a critical part of their product? Whatever that explanation, Airbus is also officially making claims for compensation for production disruption against Rolls-Royce.
Now consider the position of the ATSB and the investigation it leads, with help from EASA and Airbus among others, into the incident.
In its interim report the ATSB points to a manufacturing defect in a pipe recovered from the disintegrated engine which appears to be a prime cause of the failure, and which has been found in other engines, some of which have been used in flight, and in others yet to fly.
However as the ATSB cautions, these findings may change in the light of subsequent inquires, and Qantas is I believe in possession of information which suggests that other contributing factors were the consequences of acoustic or vibration related damage causing the failure of components that were designed too light for the stresses placed on them thus playing their part in the engine’s destruction.
This brings us back to the failures in the certification process. Did Rolls-Royce somehow persuade EASA that the Trent 900 was more like a Trent 800 than it really was, with a consequence that more rigorous testing of the behavior of what were really quite different sections of the larger engine did not form an adequate or appropriate part of the certification process?
It is easy to imagine that the ATSB will come under intense pressure to avoid over emphasizing anything critical of the competency of one of its partners in the QF inquiry.
It is also not impossible to contemplate the ATSB resisting such pressure. It may, for example, conclude that all of the actions taken in relation to the Trent 900 engines both through special inspections and modular changes will provide satisfactory outcomes.
Or it might recommend a review of what constitutes a significantly changed rather than evolved engine design in the certification processes.
There is little reason to doubt that EASA was incompetent in certifying an engine which proved so dangerous in use, and so badly made in the course of an audit of the inventory. It should never have been allowed to fly in the condition that it was in when it disintegrated on QF32.
And Qantas should never have been given the assurances it accepted from Rolls-Royce at the time it chose them over the Engine Alliance alternative.
In this decade Airbus will evolve the A380 into an even more competent jet than it is today, and its design always anticipated the use of more powerful engines in the future.
It isn’t hard to imagine Qantas reviewing its future engine choice for these later model A380s at all.