Airbus CEO Says Wing Cracks Show Risk of Technology Leaps

Airbus SAS Chief Executive Officer Tom Enders
Airbus SAS Chief Executive Officer Tom Enders said, “We thought we understood the properties of the materials and the interface between carbon fiber and metal and found out the wrong way we didn’t know everything.” Photographer: Munshi Ahmed/Bloomberg

The cracked wings of the Airbus A380 double-decker airliner are the result of new technologies mixed with insufficient design controls that are now causing spiraling repair costs, Chief Executive Officer Tom Enders said.

“This is something that wasn’t on our radar screen,” Enders said of the period 10 years ago when aircraft designers sought to make A380 wings lighter by mixing carbon fiber and metal. “We thought we understood the properties of the materials and the interface between carbon fiber and metal and found out the wrong way we didn’t know everything.”

The cracks have forced Airbus to take more than a quarter of a billion euros repair charges, and the company said this month that fixing its flagship airliner will occupy Airbus for years to come. Airbus is reviewing its delivery schedule for this year, and said that handing over 30 of the world’s largest passenger jet this year will be a challenge.

While taking risks with new materials and programs is a requirement in the airliner business, Airbus didn’t have the necessary controls to anticipate potential missteps, Enders told journalists today at a briefing in Toulouse in southwestern France, where Airbus is based.

European Aeronautic, Defence & Space Co., the parent of Airbus, said last week that charges in 2012 alone for a permanent fix for existing A380 wings would total 260 million euros, and that Airbus will take further charges in future years as it assumes the costs of repairing A380 wingsets.

Choice of Metal

Airbus has traced the cause of the cracks to the choice of a less flexible aluminum alloy used to make the wing brackets, as well as the way in which fasteners are put through holes, and the stresses involved in fitting portions of the wing together.

A short-term fix that takes about five days has been applied to about a third of the 74 A380s in service today. That solution will be applied to other operating A380s as the number of landings and takeoffs reaches a threshold mandated by regulators that requires the fix.

Airbus has worked out a re-design of the wing that would eliminate future cracks and the company is working with the European Aviation Safety Agency to gain approval.

The new design wouldn’t work its way into wing structures being built in Broughton, Wales, until mid 2013, meaning the first A380s to come off the final assembly line in Toulouse with the improved wing would be early 2014, said Tom Williams, the head of programs at Airbus.

Until a permanent re-design is incorporated into future planes, those A380s flying today and entering service before 2014 will need fixes made to wings that are far more complex and time-consuming than the rapid change, Williams said.

Those fixes can either be done after planes are fully built and not yet delivered, or after delivery, with the fixes scheduled to occur during maintenance visits after two and four years, Williams said. The scheduling for such fixes is now the subject of negotiations with airlines, he said.

“I’m quite sure the A380 will survive this, as other aircraft programs have in the past, but it costs the company dearly in money, and I’m afraid also in reputation,” Enders said.

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