Airbus's Revamped A320 Hit by Tail Strike, Qatar Broadside

  • Test plane out of action after impacting runway in Perpignan
  • Mideast carrier wants compensation, puts order in doubt

Airbus Group SE’s upgrade of its best-selling A320 jetliner family suffered twin blows after a test plane struck the ground on landing and key customer Qatar Airways Ltd. said it will refuse to take ordered aircraft unless engine issues are fully rectified.

The tail strike involving the biggest A321neo version of the single-aisle series will cause one of five test aircraft in the program to be suspended from flying for several weeks, Fabrice Bregier, who heads Airbus’s jetliner arm, told reporters Tuesday at the Singapore Air Show.

Qatar Air Chief Executive Officer Akbar Al Baker said separately at the expo that he’s seeking compensation after refusing delivery of baseline A320neos powered by Pratt & Whitney turbines with cooling issues. Al Baker said Pratt has a “long way to go” in providing a fix and that he expects a “huge” delay.

The program to re-engine Airbus’s single-aisle models has won 4,500 orders since marketing began in 2010. The jets, updates of the original A319, A320 and A321, boast a 12 percent fuel saving and are being introduced before Boeing Co.’s Max upgrade of the 737 family. Pratt’s German partner MTU Aero Engines AG said the engine issue is minor and that a two-stage solution is in the works.

Beyond Limits

Bregier said that the tail strike, in which the test plane touched the runway in Perpignan, France, 125 miles from Airbus’s base in Toulouse, is one of the normal risks during flights trials and doesn’t represent a major setback.

“These things happen, that’s why we fly-test the aircraft,” he said. “We go beyond the certified limits, the A321neo had a strike, and they had to fly back to Toulouse to be repaired. Delays in the test flight plan shouldn’t have an impact for deliveries and certification.”

Al Baker’s comments on Bloomberg Television may be more concerning for Airbus, with the CEO insisting that while the fault lies with Pratt & Whitney’s geared-turbofan engine rather than the planemaker, he will refuse to take 50 aircraft on order unless they meet prior guarantees and performance promises. Bregier said in a separate interview that Qatar was right to point at Pratt.

Robust Response

Pratt’s parent company, United Technologies Corp., has said that uneven cooling in its PW1100G engines after flights may lead to bowing and cause parts to rub together. Running air through affected units for three minutes is sufficient to get them to the right temperature -- something Qatar Air has said it’s not prepared to do -- pending a promised software fix.

MTU said Tuesday that an initial response to the glitch will be developed from April and introduced for customers from June. The second element, involving new hardware, will be rolled out by the year’s end once certificated, Michael Schreyoegg, MTU chief program officer for the PW1100G, told analysts after the company published full-year results. Retrofits may be offered, he said.

“It’s a minor, well-known issue and we have a very robust and solid delivery plan with Airbus, which we will fullfill,” Schreyoegg said. “It is nothing that is un-normal.” While the fault isn’t related to an MTU part, the Munich-based company will bear 18 percent of the cost, in line with its holding in the project, he said, adding that there’ll be no impact on the engine’s production ramp up.

Lufthansa Caution

MTU shares fell as much as 6.8 percent after the Qatar Air comments, and as it said sales growth is set to slow to less than half the pace of 2015.

While Qatar Air had agreed to be the first customer for the A320neo in December, that role fell to Deutsche Lufthansa AG in mid-January once Al Baker made his stance clear. Lufthansa is in turn limiting Neo flights to domestic routes in order to keep the model close to its engineering shops should technical failings become an issue.

The A321neo test aircraft that suffered the tail strike was fitted with rival engines from the CFM International venture of General Electric Co. and France’s Safran SA, Airbus said. The first delivery to a customer of that variant, due to be a Pratt-powered model, is scheduled for the end of 2016, with the initial CFM plane scheduled to be handed over early in 2017.

Pratt & Whitney suffered a similar struggle with engines it supplied for the Airbus A318 some 15 years ago, with customers including International Lease Finance Corp. complaining that the turbine wasn’t as efficient as expected. Pratt was originally due to have exclusivity on the smallest Airbus model, before being forced to share supply with CFM.

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