Rolls-Royce to swap out, repair leaky A380 engines

By Associated Press
Posted Nov. 15, 2010 at 12:37 p.m.

Rolls-Royce will temporarily replace engines that have oil leaks on the world’s largest jetliner after one motor disintegrated midair, an aviation regulator told The Associated Press on Monday.

The official said the British engine-maker would take off faulty engines and replace them with new ones. It will then fix the leaking part and swap the engine back again.

The official, who has been briefed by Rolls-Royce and some of the affected airlines, spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. Rolls-Royce declined to comment.

Rolls-Royce stock, trading at 596.5 pence ($9.60) at Monday’s close on the London Stock Exchange, has now lost 9 percent, or around $1.4 billion, since the Qantas midair incident Nov. 4.

Leaking oil caught fire Nov. 4 in one of the Qantas A380’s four Trent 900 engines, heating metal parts and causing the motor’s disintegration over Indonesia before the jetliner returned safely to Singapore. Experts say chunks of flying metal damaged vital systems in the wing of the Sydney-bound plane, causing the pilots to lose control of the second engine and half of the brake flaps on the damaged wing in a situation far more serious than originally portrayed by the airline.

Qantas grounded its six A380s within hours and said four days later that checks had revealed suspicious oil leaks in three engines on three different grounded A380s.

Singapore Airlines and Lufthansa, which both use A380s with Trent 900 engines, have conducted checks on their superjumbos and all but one have returned to service, the airlines say.

Qantas’ six superjumbos — the backbone of its longest and most lucrative international routes between Australia and Los Angeles, Singapore and London — remain grounded despite what experts say is financial pressure to fly them again. The removal of engines can be expected to cause longer delays and potential revenue losses.

“We are taking our normal and extremely conservative approach to safety and will not operate our A380 fleet until we are completely confident that it is safe to do so,” Qantas spokesman Simon Rushton said.

Airbus said last week that the Trent 900 problems could be expected to delay deliveries of new A380s.

“The issue is whether they have got significant numbers of engines to replace the number that are required,” said Howard Wheeldon, a senior strategist at BGC Partners in London. “These things are not kept on the shelf.”

Airlines traditionally do have some spares but Rolls-Royce hasn’t provided detailed information on just how many engines need to be replaced.

“I think this is a slightly worrying move in that quite clearly the amount of time required to undertake such an exercise increases,” Wheeldon said. “We could be talking many months rather than many weeks or many days.”

That could lead to extended delays in getting the existing A380 fleet back in the air and potentially greater compensation claims from the affected airlines.

A longer replacement timetable — and using up spare engines — would also hit the delivery of all-new A380s due to Qantas, Lufthansa and China Southern Airlines in coming months.

British Airways, which is due to receive in 2013 the first of the 12 A380s with Trent 900 engines it has ordered, said it was not concerned right now.

Virgin Atlantic, which has six of the aircraft on order for delivery in 2015, said it will continue to monitor any ongoing discussions between the engine manufacturers and other operators.

Wheeldon said the direct expense of the work for Rolls-Royce would not necessarily be much greater than previously thought, given that the company was always likely to remove the entire engine to replace the faulty part.

Shipping spare engines to Australia was a 24-hour job at the outside, he said.

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