INTERNATIONAL. Airlines were ordered to inspect all operating Airbus SAS A380 aircraft, as Europe’s air safety regulator escalates required checks after the wings of the double-decker superjumbo developed cracks.
The directive by the European Aviation Safety Agency addresses all 68 A380s in operation, after the watchdog had initially targeted only the 20 most heavily used airliners in a previous request. Carriers must report their inspections to Airbus, which said the plane remains safe to fly.
The hairline cracks stem from an assembly process that Airbus has said it knows how to fix. The company is seeking to protect the reputation of its flagship aircraft, whose popularity with passengers has yet to translate into profitability for the manufacturer. Singapore Airlines Inc., the first operator of the aircraft in 2007, said it’s repaired most of the 10 jets in its fleet and put them back into service.
“It’s understandably concerning to passengers,” said Bob Mann, president of aviation advisory firm R.W. Mann & Co. in Port Washington, New York. “The presumption is that airlines aren’t supposed to have cracks, when in fact they all do.”
Emirates, the biggest customer for the A380, said it has inspected four of its A380s and that the new directive doesn’t affect operations. Emirates, based in Dubai, has ordered 90 of the US$375 million jetliner, and already operates 20 in its fleet. Qantas Airways Ltd. is the second-largest customer for the A380, with 12. The Australian carrier pulled one A380 out of service today after finding the fissures in the wings.
The discovery of the cracks is linked to an incident in November 2010, when an engine on a Qantas A380 exploded in mid flight and sent shrapnel through the wing. Inspections of the aircraft later revealed the existence of tiny cracks in the wing, prompting Airbus to advise a review of other planes.
“This condition, if not detected and corrected, may lead to reduction of the structural integrity of the aeroplane,” Cologne-based EASA said today in its directive.
The wings for the A380 are built in Broughton in the U.K., where Airbus employs more than 5,000 people. The structures are partly made from carbon fiber material and are transported by road and river to the sea from where they are shipped to the Airbus headquarters in Toulouse for final assembly.
With the A380 remaining a rare sight at global airports, airlines have marketed the special features of the twin-deck aircraft that include closed-off first-class suites on Singapore, shower cabins and duty-free shops. Most airlines have opted for a three-class layout of the A380, which can fit more than 800 passengers in an all-economy configuration.
Airbus, the largest maker of passenger jets, has said short-term repairs will take as many as five days for each plane, while a longer-term solution will include new materials and a different way of assembly. The A380 that Qantas pulled out of service will remain on the ground for as long as a week.
Neither Airbus nor its parent European Aeronautic, Defence & Space Co. has given an indication about the cost associated with the repairs. The A380 remains unprofitable for Airbus, which had aimed to break even with the superjumbo in 2015. Developing the aircraft cost more than US$20 billion.
Hairline cracks discovered in some A380 wings in late December were initially not deemed critical, with Airbus calling for fixes only at the routine four-year checks. A second series of bigger cracks around the central part of the wing were considered graver and prompted EASA to require the inspection of the first batch of 20 double-decker planes.
The cracks can be traced to the choice of a less flexible aluminum alloy used to make the wing brackets, the fashion in which fasteners are put through holes, and the stresses involved in fitting portions of the wing together.
A total of 253 A380s have been ordered by 19 customers. That compares with more than 1,500 Boeing Co. 747 jumbo jets, which debuted in the late 1960s and dominated the market for very large commercial aircraft for decades.
Besides Emirates, Singapore and Qantas, the aircraft is operated by Air France KLM Group, which has has eight, while Deutsche Lufthansa AG has six, Korean Air Lines Co. has five, and China Southern Co. has two. The aircraft has two levels and typically seats about 550 passengers.
Lufthansa said the oldest of its A380s has only performed 900 take-offs and landings, below the 1,300 cycle specified by EASA as the threshold for checks. The German carrier is monitoring the planes and has so far discovered no “unusual activity” on the aircraft, spokesman Aage Duenhaupt said.