After the recent incident involving QF32 and the subsequent inspections of the Intermediate Pressure Turbine (IPT) section of engines for oil leaks, airlines have begun to replace Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engines on Airbus A380 aircraft.
Putting together the numerous reports coming across the traditional and social media, it appears that the number of engines scheduled for replacement has grown: 14 engines for Qantas, 20 for Singapore and two for Lufthansa. That equals 36 engines, not counting the requirements for the Airbus production line. There aren’t enough engines in existence to meet the that total demand, which means that some A380s can be expected to remain on the ground for some time. Airbus has indicated that it is expediting engines from new production to customers to enable operations to continue, which will cause future delivery delays.
With few spares available (Lufthansa has only one, for example), a shortfall in Trent 900 engines will likely result in significant delays for A380 aircraft returning to service. And since Rolls-Royce cannot easily produce replacement engines without correcting the apparent flaw, a quick resolution is not in sight. In the interim, Rolls is replacing modules within existing engines with new ones — but since these are the same design as the ones that failed, it begs the question of whether there is a basic design flaw or a quality flaw in manufacturing causing the leaks. In either case, this doesn’t provide a lot of comfort for passengers.
While it appears that a likely cause has been identified, a permanent fix has not yet been developed by Rolls-Royce, so aircraft in service will likely continued to be subject to frequent inspections with existing components.
Three more serious implications result from this issue. First, the uncontained failure damaged several systems on the Qantas A380 that may require aircraft redesign work, a significant issue for Airbus. The engine shut off system failed on the aircraft, and several systems were damaged, including fuel and hydraulic systems that run through the wing that was damaged by engine debris. If it is determined that a major redesign of system is required, this would negatively impact the A380 production program that is just now beginning to reach efficient levels, and delay deliveries to Airbus customers. Retrofits would also require taking aircraft out of service for a considerable period, disrupting schedules for carriers that are already short on capacity.
The second implication is for the Trent 1000 used on the Boeing 787, which suffered a similar failure on a test stand last August. While unrelated, the similarity of the failure in the IPT section could result in additional delays to the already beleaguered 787 program.
The third, and perhaps most important, is that two A380 customers for 10 aircraft and 19 787 customers for 219 aircraft have yet to select their engines. Engine Alliance and GE will make a full court press to exploit the flaws in the Trent engine to win that business. If the majority of those customers choose the competition, Rolls market share, currently #2 for each aircraft, could shrink even further.
The news is certainly not good for Rolls-Royce. They need to move quickly on the technical front. So far we know that oil leaks of unknown origin apparently cause fires in the IPT section that result in weakening of blades that subsequently catastrophically fail. Until a clear cause for the oil leaks are discovered and corrected, the engines will be suspect and subject to frequent inspection if flown.
In the interim, Rolls faces significant financial issues with its customers. Qantas is losing over $1 million per day in revenues while its A380s are out of service, and should the Trent 1000 further delay the 787 program, Rolls will be expected to pay its portion of compensation to airlines. There will be a significant financial hit this year, likely wiping out the profits from the Trent 900 program. The bigger question is whether the Trent 1000 will result in even more significant losses from the 787 program, as the early delivery positions are scheduled for Rolls Royce engines that may now not be available on time.