Airbus, Rolls Probe Engine Blowout on Qantas A380 Jet

Singapore Air Halts Airbus A380 Flights
It wasn’t immediately clear what caused the problem with engine No. 2. Photographer: Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty Images

Airbus SAS and Rolls-Royce Group Plc began investigating why an engine on a Qantas Airways Ltd. A380 superjumbo exploded in mid flight, forcing an emergency landing in the worst incident since the aircraft began service in 2007.

Rolls-Royce, the world’s second-biggest maker of jet engines, urged airlines that operate its Trent 900 turbines to conduct precautionary checks. The Sydney-bound Qantas plane, carrying 433 passengers and 26 crew, returned to Singapore and landed safely today after one of its four engines blew up, scattering debris over an Indonesian island.

The failure, Qantas’s second in three months with Rolls-Royce engines, prompted the Australian carrier to ground its six A380s until the cause of the malfunction is known. Singapore Airlines Ltd., which has 11 superjumbos with the same turbines in service, will delay flights while it carries out inspections.

“The engine manufacturer is where we should look,” Howard Wheeldon, senior strategist at BGC Partners in London, said in an interview with Francine Lacqua on Bloomberg Television’s “On The Move.” “Rolls have to step up to the plate and ensure that all procedures were carried out correctly. The manufacturer of the aircraft will be very concerned.”

‘As Long as It Takes’

The Qantas planes will be out of service for “as long as it takes,” Chief Executive Officer Alan Joyce said at a press briefing in Sydney broadcast on Australian television. The turbine suffered what appeared to be an “uncontained failure,” where pieces of debris are flung out at high speed, piercing the casing, or nacelle, the Australian company said.

“Something fairly big failed and damaged the nacelle, causing some sort of fire,” said Nick Cunningham, an analyst at Agency Partners LP in London who has covered the industry for 25 years. “If it was an uncontained failure in the core then that’s pretty serious. A generic problem with the engine would have implications for all A380s with Rolls-Royce engines.”

Rolls-Royce fell 5 percent in London, the most since April 20 last year. Airbus parent European Aeronautic, Defence & Space Co. fell 4.1 percent in Paris, the biggest slide since July 15.

The European Aviation Safety Agency issued a so-called airworthiness directive effective from Jan. 29 warning of abnormal levels of wear to the Trent 900 during standard operation. Qantas said it complied with the recommendations.

Los Angeles, London

France’s BEA aviation safety authority and the U.K. Air Accidents Investigation Branch will join a probe led by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau.

Qantas, which has never suffered a fatal jet accident, stopped two flights leaving Los Angeles and one in Sydney, and passengers will stay at the departure points until replacement planes can be arranged, spokeswoman Emma Kearns said by phone.

On Sept. 1, the Australian airline said a Boeing Co. 747 bound for Sydney returned to San Francisco after an engine failed and was shut off soon after take-off.

Qantas A380s fly daily services to Los Angeles from Sydney and three times a week from Melbourne. The aircraft also carry out twice-a-week services from Melbourne to London, and goes five times a week between Sydney and London. The London flights all have stopovers in Singapore.

Singapore Air, Lufthansa

Singapore Airlines and Deutsche Lufthansa AG are the only other carriers with superjumbos powered by the same Trent 900 engines. Singapore Air, the first carrier to fly the A380, said in a statement that it would delay all services with the aircraft following advice from Rolls-Royce and Airbus to conduct precautionary technical checks.

Cologne, Germany-based Lufthansa is using its A380s as normal and doesn’t expect any changes to its flight schedule as it plans to perform the checks during regular ground time, said spokesman Peter Schneckenleitner.

Air France, which has four A380s powered by turbines from the Engine Alliance, a venture between General Electric Co. and United Technologies Corp.’s Pratt & Whitney, will operate them as normal, spokesman Herve Erschler said in an e-mailed statement.

Gulf carrier Emirates, the other A380 operator and the model’s biggest customer, said it would keep its 13 Engine Alliance-equipped planes flying.

“For Emirates it’s business as usual,” President Tim Clark said in a telephone interview. “We’re not concerned. It’s not an issue that we’re looking into.”


Frankfurt resident Stephan Meier, speaking at the city’s main airport after flying from Dubai with Emirates, said he’d be happy to board an A380 using Rolls-Royce engines.

“As long as an airline runs its regular maintenance checks, things should turn out alright,” he said.

Photographs of the Qantas plane, which rained down debris over Indonesia before landing at 11:46 a.m. after returning to Singapore, show parts of the engine housing missing, with areas blackened by fire. The incident could have been fatal if debris had hit the fuselage or wing, Cunningham said.

“The engine is designed to contain any fan blade failure, but not a failure of the core,” he said. “You can see from the photos that the damage appears to be to the outer facing of the engine -- in which case it was just a bit lucky.”

Toulouse, France-based Airbus is working with concerned parties, spokesman Justin Dubon said. The manufacturer has no information yet on what caused the incident, spokesman Sean Lee said by phone from Singapore. The planemaker has sold a total of 234 A380s, according to data on its website.

Korean Air, China Southern

While the incident on the Qantas flight is the gravest to date on the world’s largest passenger plane, it is not the first to hobble carriers. Two tires burst on landing by an A380 at Sydney airport on May 31. Emirates had to delay a South Korea to Dubai flight in January after fuel system glitches.

Incidents with 38 A380s in service draw more publicity than do other jets because airlines tout the double-decker plane as their flagship model. Korean Air Lines Co. and China Southern Airlines Co. will take delivery of their first A380s next year.

The majority of A380s in operation today use Rolls-Royce engines. GE, the world’s largest maker of aircraft engines, created its alliance with Pratt specifically for the superjumbo. Like the Boeing 747 and the Airbus A340 wide-bodies, the A380 runs on four engines and is capable of landing safely even if some powerplants malfunction.

Test Site

In August, London-based Rolls-Royce closed a test site after damage caused by the uncontained failure of a Trent 1000 engine, which powers Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner model and forced an additional delay to the introduction to Boeing’s latest jet.

The Qantas A380 landed in Singapore at about 11:45 a.m. local time with an engine that had scorch marks and part of its cover blown off. Indonesia’s Metro TV showed images from Batam Island of plane pieces, some requiring two people to carry.

The debris will be collected to help with the investigation, Transport Minister Freddy Numberi said today in Jakarta. Passengers and crew will stay overnight in Singapore before being placed on a Boeing 747 flight to Sydney tomorrow. Qantas is organizing hotels for those affected.

“I was on the plane right next to engine two, which exploded with a loud bang,” passenger Lars Sandberg told the British Broadcasting Corp. “I thought that something had fallen down in cargo underneath the plane, but the plane started shaking. I travel a lot and this is the first big scare.”

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