Rolls-Royce explains failure of A380 engine part

2010-11-12 11:30

London – Rolls-Royce said today that the failure of a Qantas A380 engine last week was specific to the Trent 900 series of engines and confined to a specific component of the turbine engine that started an oil fire.

In a trading update, London-based Rolls-Royce said the incident would cause full-year profit growth “to be slightly lower than previously guided”, but it also said the company’s other operations would help to offset any losses.

The update from the world’s second-biggest engine maker behind General Electric – and one of the last global industrial manufacturing companies in Britain – has been keenly awaited by investors and analysts. The company’s shares have slumped 10% since the incident as it has remained largely silent.

Rolls-Royce said the series of checks made on the Trent 900s after last week’s incident had led it to draw two key conclusions.

“First, the issue is specific to the Trent 900,” Rolls-Royce told the London Stock Exchange. “Second, the failure was confined to a specific component in the turbine area of the engine. This caused an oil fire, which led to the release of the intermediate pressure turbine disc.”

The statement supports a report from the European Aviation Safety Agency, which issued an emergency order yesterday requiring airlines to re-examine their Trent 900s and ground any planes with suspicious leaks. The agency said the explosion on the engine of the Qantas jet was caused by an oil fire inside the engine.

Rolls-Royce’s chief executive, John Rose, said the company would be replacing the relevant part “according to an agreed programme” as inspections on the engine continued with aviation regulators.

“This programme will enable our customers progressively to bring the whole fleet back into service,” Rose said. “Safety continues to be Rolls-Royce’s highest priority.”

Leaks or oil stains have been discovered on six of the 20 A380s operated by Qantas, Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines that use the Trent 900 engines. Qantas and Singapore Airlines have grounded nine of the world’s largest airliner between them while Germany’s Lufthansa has already replaced an engine on one of its A380s.

Engines on the A380 malfunctioned four times before one of them disintegrated during a flight from Singapore to Sydney last week, and aviation experts said that the earlier mishaps might hold clues to design or construction flaws.

Four problems dating to 2008 led to two warnings for airlines to check parts of the Rolls-Royce Trent 900, a technologically advanced model used by 20 Airbus A380s around the world.

Three of the four previous problems centred on the turbines or oil system.

The number of problems identified in the Trent 900 is not unusual for a jet engine, and analysts, pilots and former safety investigators caution that there is no obvious link between the earlier mishaps and last week’s failure.

But the experts also say they suspect there may be critical problems that weren’t detected before the engine went into use. Several experts pointed to the tubes that pump oil around the spinning turbines of the house-sized engine as a possible culprit.

Joerg Handwerg, a spokesperson for the pilots’ union for German airline Lufthansa, said that minor problems were routine for any jet engine, but it was possible that the issues were an indication that regulators did not adequately check the engine before approving it for commercial use.

“When you see we have a problem with not just one of these engines but several, then it points towards the fact that we have a problem in the certification process,” Handwerg said.

Michael Barr, who teaches aviation safety at the University of Southern California, said the Trent 900 was “out there right at the edge of the envelope” of new engines that were lighter, more energy efficient, less polluting and less noisy.

“The engine has been out there for a few years. They’ve got some miles on it and now they’re finding things they didn’t foresee,” he said.

Rolls-Royce, an aerospace, power systems and defence company separate from the car manufacturer, said the hit to its bottom line from the Qantas incident and its fallout would be partly mitigated by the company’s other operations.

“The scale of our order book, the breadth and mix of our portfolio, the global nature of our business and our strong balance sheet makes Rolls-Royce a resilient business, and we expect continued underlying profit growth in 2010,” Rose said.

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