Big day for QANTAS and Rolls-Royce

Today, 27 November 2010, Qantas will be re-introducing the A380 to flight operations after being grounded since the November 4 incident where VH-OQA suffered an in-flight engine explosion that very nearly ended in tragedy.

In light of the significant damage caused by the uncontained engine failure, Qantas is indeed lucky to have its impeccable safety record intact. Analysis of the incident shows a number of factors that could have brought about an entirely different conclusion, such as a severed fuel pipe, an inability due to system failures to re-distribute fuel to balance the aircraft during fuel dumping, and a reported 54 computer warning messages being activated on the flight deck that the crew had to deal with.

The incident is very reminiscent of the Air France Concorde crash in Paris in July, 2000, however, the outcome on that occasion was very different. As with the Air France Concorde, debris punctured the A380’s wing causing internal damage that created a fuel leak, but, unlike the Concorde, the fuel didn’t have an ignition source and so no fire ensued. Had there been an ignition source, the aircraft would have had virtually no chance of making it back to Changi Airport.

Since the November 4 incident, Qantas has been at pains to assure the world that it views safety as its number one priority and that the A380 would only be returned to service once it was satisfied that it was safe to do so. And so today, the A380 re-enters service with Qantas – let’s hope it goes smoothly.

While Qantas has taken a very clear line on safety in relation to this incident, Rolls-Royce’s image seems to have taken a hit, not so much for how they have responded to the incident, but how they failed to act prior to it. Specifically, Rolls apparently knew of a potential issue that could lead to an oil fire in the engine some time ago but failed to notify Qantas.

Reports suggest Qantas pays for ‘Power by the Hour’ on it’s A380’s Trent engines whereby maintenance and service of the engines is carried out by Rolls-Royce, and while this may seem like a perfectly logical arrangement, it does have one flaw. The object of the contract for Qantas is to ensure optimum performance and operational reliability at a fixed cost per flight hour of the engine. However, the object of the contract for Rolls-Royce is to provide the service as efficiently as possible so that it maximises its profit margin on the contract. Any additional or unexpected costs incurred by Rolls has a direct impact on the bottom line of the contract.

And therein lies the problem. If Rolls-Royce had immediately acted on information that indicated a possible design flaw in the engine’s operation, it could have cost them a significant amount of money to either modify or even switch the engines on the Qantas aircraft. Clearly Rolls-Royce thought they could allow the engines to continue in service and potentially address the issue down the track, and there’s no way a company like Rolls-Royce would not have done a very careful assessment of the situation once the information became known to them, however, it does highlight the conflict of interest between running a business and doing everything possible for the customer.

A6-EDE Emirates Airbus A380-861. Emirates uses the Engine Alliance GP7200 on its A380'sThe Trent 900 is one of two engine options available on the A380, the other being the Engine Alliance GP7200, currently powering A380’s operated by Emirates Airline and Air France. While the Trent 900 was specifically developed for the A380, it is actually a development within the Trent family of Rolls-Royce engines that has its roots in the RB-211 engine that was developed for the Lockheed TriStar. Current versions of the family power Airbus A330, A340 and Boeing 777 airliners and have a very strong market share that has been won by having a very good operational reliability and efficiency record. According to Rolls-Royce, this event was the first of its kind to occur on one of its engines since 1994 and 142,000,000 hours of RB-211 and Trent operation.

So the pedigree of the engine speaks for itself and, going forward, Rolls-Royce will certainly be keeping a very careful eye on how the Trent 900 performs in service and even the slightest hint of a problem will be under the microscope. That can only be good news for customers as Rolls-Royce will want to ensure it is seen to be doing the right thing in an industry where reputation in the modern day and age hinges safety.

Today then is a big day for both Rolls-Royce and Qantas. Both are very fine companies with a stellar reputation for quality, reliability, service and that all important safety, and both will be doing all they can to ensure there’s at least another 142,000,000 hours of Trent operation before a significant problem occurs again.

VH-OQA Qantas Airbus A380-842. This is the aircraft that suffered the engine failure on 4 November after take-off from Singapore's Changi Airport

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