The Airbus Military A400M is in the news again, and once again the news would have you believe the program is in deep trouble. The program is facing a technical issue, but this is not a show stopper. The issue is serious though. “On the military side, we are now facing a serious challenge for production and customer deliveries of the A400M due to new, unexpected issues on the engine propeller gearbox,” Tom Enders, Airbus group chief executive, said in the statement from the company’s first-quarter financial results.
The first issue involved a heat treatment process in manufacturing that adversely affected the strength of the ring gear. Airbus stated that “pending full replacement of the batch, any aircraft can continue to fly with no more than one affected propeller gear box installed and is subject to continuing inspections.” The next problem was minuscule particles in the gearbox that engine sensors detected. This issue involved cracking of the input pinion plug, which in some cases can release small metallic particles into the oil system, where they are detected by a magnetic chip detector. Only engines one and three, with propellers rotating to the right, are affected.
The gearbox comes from Avio Aero in Italy, a subsidiary of GE. The issue is squarely engine related and the engine team, EPI, will have to provide a fix. While this is being done, the various operators can fly as normal with a 20-hour inspection interval. We know of only one case where an in-flight engine shutdown has occurred. The inspection process has to be annoying as there are four engines. But, we understand, many of the A400M operators continue to fly the aircraft as before. That says something about confidence. Besides, as we have seen across the commercial spectrum, new aircraft have glitches. That’s just how it is.
Airbus’ A400M has been through a tough time – first flight was planned for 2008 but occurred a year later. The program saw more slowdowns and cost increases up to its first delivery to the French Air Force in 2013. So far 174 have been ordered by eight nations. The program saw numerous hiccups. Airbus threatened to shut down the project in 2009 unless customers increased their budget commitments. The programs costs grew at an awkward time for Airbus, it was in the midst of developing the A380 and A350 – both of which were also burning capital. A400M delays came just as NATO was embroiled in Afghanistan. NATO members needed heavy lift and without the A400M, customers had to seek alternatives. This was great news for Boeing and its C-17 as well as Lockheed and its C130J.
To date 24 aircraft have been delivered, and an industry source advises these aircraft are working as expected. The French have been flying long hauls from Orleans to Mali without a hitch. Currently the UK and France have eight aircraft each, making them the biggest fleets in service. The aircraft is still new and customers are “unlocking the potential”.
As A400M usage grows, with each customer contributing its own unique experience back to Airbus, the program can only become more settled and robust. Meanwhile the military transport market is not big, and is growing more competitive. We include the C-17 in the table because this is regarded as the state of the art, even though it is no longer being manufactured.
The largest market segment is the heaviest and the lightest. But with the C-17 out of production, this also something of a significant limit to the heaviest option. On the other end of the scale is the C130J, the lightest and the best seller overall. Indeed, over 2,500 versions of the C130 have been sold since it entered service in 1954.
The Embraer KC-390 is a threat to the C130J because can do the same job and has greater capabilities. Lockheed Martin’s C130 is the benchmark military tactical freighter. But has never faced a competitor from a western OEM.
Given the end of the C-17’s production, any military with a higher payload requirement has nowhere to go but the A400M. Its teething pains have been trying. But it can do a lot of what the C-17 does at a lot less cost. Looking at the C-17 price; could one reasonably think a customer would fly it into a tactical airfield? That’s a lot of risk to take on a dirt runway. Antonov might have been an alternative, but they don’t have anything like the A400M. Nobody does. The A400M has strategic capabilities as well as tactical abilities. It can fly very far, with a big load, and still land on a dirt strip.
So even as we read about the teething troubles of the A400M, some perspective is in order. Customers that ordered the aircraft have nothing else to choose from – the C130 can’t do the same job. Airbus and its engine maker will solve the challenges.
Co-Founder AirInsight. My previous life includes stints at Shell South Africa, CIC Research, and PA Consulting. Got bitten by the aviation bug and ended up an Avgeek. Then the data bug got me, making me a curious Avgeek seeking data-driven logic. Also, I appreciate conversations with smart people from whom I learn so much. Summary: I am very fortunate to work with and converse with great people.