Australian authorities recommend more inspections for the A380 Rolls-Royce Trent 900s


Australia’s Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) and Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) have released their safety recommendations and the results of the preliminary investigation relating to the failure of a Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engine on a Qantas A380 last month. The report by the ATSB identifies an overspeed-related failure in the intermediate pressure turbine disc in the engine, and identifies a potential manufacturing defect with an oil tube connection to the high-pressure (HP)/intermediate-pressure (IP) bearing structure of the Trent 900 engine. Qantas has gained an injunction against Rolls-Royce in the Australian Federal Court and now pushes its claims for compensation, with the background threat of further litigation if agreement on terms is not possible.

According to the ATSB, the problem relates to the potential for misaligned oil pipe counter-boring, which could lead to fatigue cracking, oil leakage and potential engine failure from an oil fire within the HP/IP bearing buffer space. ATSB Chief Commissioner Martin Dolan described the incident as a “critical safety issue”.

Rolls-Royce affected airlines, which include Qantas, Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines, are now taking action to ensure the continued safe operation of A380 aircraft. This involves close inspection of the particular engines and the removal from service of any engine displaying the suspected counter-boring problem. These are recommended to be conducted within two flight cycles, providing a level of inspection over and above the current 20 cycle inspection required by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). EASA has meanwhile stated it has no plans to revise its airworthiness directive made on 23-Nov-2010 for carriers to focus their inspections on the oil service tubes.

CASA also issued a directive to Qantas to conduct further Trent 900 inspections, including checks of the oil filler tube that feeds oil to the engine's high pressure/intermediate pressure bearing structure. Qantas engineers will check for signs of the wall of the tube being out of tolerance and reduced in thickness, which could cause the tube to crack and leak oil.

CASA continues to liaise closely with Qantas, the EASA, Rolls-Royce, Airbus and the ATSB over the issues.

Rolls-Royce expecting to fix all Trent 900s by end of 2011

In response, Rolls-Royce stated the ATSB’s recommendation is “consistent with that we’ve said before”. CFO Andrew Shilston stated Rolls will inspect and fix all Trent 900 engines by the end of 2011. According to Mr Shilston, fixing the engines requires replacing “a small component inside the engine that’s not costly”. The company will also shorten the recommended length of time before the part will need to be replaced.

The CFO also stated analyst estimates that the repairs will cost Rolls-Royce approximately USD78 million are “about” accurate for 2010. The majority of Rolls' expenses are to be incurred this year.

Airbus not aware of oil leaks “until the engine blew up”

Airbus also stated it will work closely with ATSB, customers and Rolls-Royce to minimise any disruptions to A380 operations. The company stated it will replace engines on new A380s scheduled for completion in 2011, so as to maintain delivery targets.

According to Airbus COO John Leahy, Airbus was not aware of the oil leaks “until the engine blew up” in the 04-Nov-2010 Qantas incident. He confirmed the new versions of the Trent 900s will not suffer oil leaks and that Rolls-Royce is equipping the engines with software that will shut down the motor with leaking oil.

Airbus is necessarily concerned at any commercial backwash against the A380 itself as a result of the Trent 900 defect and, like Qantas, is taking all step possible to distance the company from liability, real or perceived.

Qantas to inspect engines, now looking for compensation

For its part, Qantas has welcomed the ATSB preliminary report. The A380 damaged by the Trent 900 explosion will remain in Singapore while Airbus develops and then undertakes a significant repair programme.

Sixteen Trent 900 engines used by Qantas will require either modification to the latest standard or full replacement. Five of these have been replaced to date. Qantas confirmed it will conduct further, more detailed one-off inspections of engines, taking a “conservative, safety-first approach”.

After discussions with the ATSB and Rolls-Royce, it was decided it was prudent to conduct further inspections of engine components, although Qantas is adamant there is no immediate risk to flight safety and the move is merely in line with its “conservative, safety-first approach”.

Qantas has two A380 aircraft in operational service, following the grounding of the fleet on 04-Nov-2010. Both A380 aircraft will be inspected at the Qantas Jet Base in Sydney. Inspections commenced on 02-Dec-2010 on the ‘B’ series engines. Rolls-Royce has advised Qantas the most recent ‘C’ series engines are not affected. Qantas stated it will determine any further response after it has finalised the inspection regime and consulted with both regulators and the manufacturer.

The carrier will continue to operate a full international and domestic schedule, substituting other aircraft where necessary - mostly B747-400s - and expects to make further announcements about the return to service of more A380s before Christmas. Qantas is due to take delivery of two new A380s over the next few weeks, with another two due for delivery in early 2011. Airbus confirmed it is “on track” to deliver the new A380s. It hopes to deliver a further 20 new A380s internationally next year.

The airline does not anticipate at this stage that the inspections will have an impact on international services, however contingency arrangements will be in place, if needed. Spokesperson Olivia Wirth stated Qantas is eager to return to business as normal.

Qantas also confirmed it has commenced discussions with Rolls-Royce on a range of issues concerning the A380 fleet, including financial and operational impacts and will also consider legal options. The airline has filed a statement of claim and been granted an injunction by the Federal Court of Australia which will ensure that the company can pursue legal action against Rolls-Royce in Australia, particularly under the Trade Practices Act, if a commercial settlement is not possible.

The carrier has claimed in the filing that Rolls-Royce was in breach of duty when it supplied the Trent 900 engines because of their design defect. Furthermore, it has also alleged the company was in breach as the engines were unable to operate at high enough thrust levels to takeoff on services between Australia and Los Angeles.

The action allows Qantas to keep all options available to recover losses, as a result of the grounding of the A380 fleet and the operational constraints currently imposed on A380 services. Qantas stated it remains committed to working with Rolls-Royce on the Trent 900 inspection programme, in consultation with Airbus and CASA. CEO Alan Joyce stated Rolls-Royce has been "very apologetic throughout" the ongoing issue.

Singapore Airlines complying: latest advisory is “really nothing new”

Singapore Airlines stated it has been complying with inspection recommendations from EASA and Rolls-Royce for its Trent 900 engines and the latest advisory is “really nothing new”. The inspections are not expected to affect its operating schedule. Alternative aircraft will be deployed on A380 routes to/from Sydney and Melbourne until 16-Dec-2010, with supplementary flights also to be operated while inspections take place. The carrier stated that if the issue is “a manufacturing defect, that it could be isolated to just that one Qantas engine”. SIA declined to comment on whether it will seek compensation from Rolls-Royce, stating its focus at present is on the engine checks.

Rolls-Royce facing major compensation claims

Rolls-Royce, having confirmed a relatively low compensation figure (for 2010) is now potentially facing many hundreds of millions of diollars in compensation to Qantas, and potentially Singapore Airlines and Lufthansa (although the majority of Lufthansa’s Trent 900 engines are newer, modified models). It remains unknown how Rolls will respond the Qantas’ claims, as the company has remained fairly quiet since the 04-Nov-2010 incident. But, as major partners effectively in each others' ventures, with long term interests at stake, there are strong pressures on each side to achieve an amicable resolution. That said, Qantas in particular appears to be in an extremely good position to leverage its claim.

The airline has ordered all of its 20 aircraft to be equipped with the Rolls-Royce engines and the prospect of a split fleet, using Pratt & Whitney engines is not an attractive one, bringing with it costly duplication of maintenance and spares issues, along with other complexities. That said, it is a competitive world and every manufacturer is constantly on the alert to win over customers from the opposition. Qantas will not have to do much to remind Roll of that during the negotiations.

Want More Analysis Like This?

CAPA Membership provides access to all news and analysis on the site, along with access to many areas of our comprehensive databases and toolsets.
Find Out More