Airbus A380 Wing Fix May Ground Aircraft for Eight Weeks

Airbus Chief Operating Officer John Leahy
Airbus Chief Operating Officer John Leahy. Photographer: Nelson Ching/Bloomberg

Airbus SAS said airlines flying the A380 double decker will need to ground their planes for as long as eight weeks once the wings undergo permanent repair work that is more complex than an interim fix being done now.

Airbus Chief Operating Officer John Leahy, speaking in Beijing at the annual general meeting of the International Air Transport Association, said the aircraft are safe to fly and don’t need instant grounding, and that airlines can choose if they want the long-term fix implemented upon delivery or later.

“Of course we are not happy, but we have to live with it,” Emirates President Tim Clark said in the interview today in Beijing. “There was an error in design and specification of metals and plastic composite to the aircraft. They are making detailed studies of what happened and what they have to do.”

The wing-crack debacle has cost Airbus parent European Aeronautic, Defence and Space co. more than 250 million euros ($315 million) in repair and service costs, and the manufacturer has said the issue will occupy the company for years. Airbus is reviewing its delivery schedule for this year, and said that handing over 30 of the world’s largest passenger jet in 2012 will be a challenge. Emirates is the biggest A380 customer, having ordered 90 aircraft in total.

Delivered With Defect

There are 75 A380s in service around the globe today, and Airbus has booked orders for 253 of its flagship product, which typically seats about 550 passengers. Deutsche Lufthansa AG Chief Executive Officer Christoph Franz said his airline has not found any cracks in its A380’s wings so far. The German carrier operates 9 A380s and has ordered 17 in total.

“We are very much involved with Airbus to find a definite fix for this issue,” he said in Beijing. “As at any airline, Lufthansa is not very happy that we have to take aircraft out of service. We try to match this with regular checks to minimize the damage and hopefully we’ll get along with this.”

The cracks are the result of new technologies mixed with insufficient design controls. Airbus engineers have determined an altered design for the wing that would use different materials. Once safety authorities have approved the change, Airbus can alter manufacturing of the wings in Broughton, Wales, allowing aircraft coming off the production line by January 2014 to be free of the defect.

Planes delivered from now until the beginning of 2014 still contain the defect, and require both short-term fixes if cracks develop, as well as the permanent repair that can take eight weeks per plane. Emirates taken delivery of 21 of the double-decker planes. It has 14 more scheduled for delivery that will require the eight-week removal from service.

‘Hugely Expensive’

Airlines taking delivery before 2014 will have the choice between an immediate, permanent fix once the planes come off production lines, or repairs in stages during required maintenance checks after about two and four years, Leahy said.

The interim repairs that come first are supposed to take about six days, according to Airbus. Clark said some of his planes were out of service for 42 days to get the fix.

“It’s taking quite a long time because we have the largest fleet,” Clark said. “Will it get done? Of course it will get done. Is the aircraft safe to fly? Of course it’s safe. It’s just a burden for us.”

Emirates isn’t seeking compensation and merely wants the job done, which is “hugely expensive” for Airbus, Clark said. He said Emirates has proposed that Airbus stop producing A380s and sort out the issue first, though Airbus rejected the idea. A report in La Depeche saying the grounding may take as long as three months is wrong, an Airbus spokesman said.

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.

The short-term, or interim fix has been applied to more than a third of the about 75 A380s in service. 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.

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