Critical safety and regulatory issues for all airlines are coming into focus because of the serious “uncontained” engine failure on a Qantas A380 operating as QF32 between Singapore and Sydney last Thursday. They involve the massive migration of airliner maintenance to consolidated service providers, and the dangers that arise where the designer and maker of something as critical as an engine also promises the earth in taking on its lifetime care.
The engine that caused multiple threats, some of them grave threats, to the safety of the 466 passengers and crew on QF 32 last week was subject to a total care agreement between Qantas and its designer and maker Rolls-Royce. The promises Rolls-Royce made can be read here.
Qantas says it only has a “partial” total care deal with Rolls-Royce, based on the same facility in Singapore where Singapore Airlines has a total total care agreement with it for the same type of engine that powers its A380s. Which is playing with words — most total care agreements have variations reflecting the line maintenance or other routine tasks that an airline might have to perform on particular engines in use around their networks.
Rolls-Royce says 90% of its engines are now covered by total care agreements, and the figures for other engine makers, such as GE or its Franco-American partnership in CFM for Boeing 737 engines, are rapidly moving towards similarly high levels of consolidated care.
The topic that Rolls-Royce is running away from discussing is why it failed to be aware of the oil leaks and other abnormal faults that were not discovered in the Qantas Trent 900s until after one disintegrated.
It looks increasingly likely that the reason Qantas has experienced severe issues with its Trent 900s is that it runs them at a higher maximum thrust setting than the other users of the type, Singapore Airlines and Lufthansa.
However, as in all safety incident investigations, other complications and issues remain to be fully investigated. Qantas has made it clear that faults may be involved in the materials used in the making of the particular engines that have caused it grief, and that there may be design issues with its version of the Trent 900 that were or weren’t triggered by these material faults, and so forth.
The phrase “oil where oil shouldn’t be” used by Qantas CEO Alan Joyce in describing its Rolls-Royce problems, covers numerous uncertainties as to the exact cause-and-effect sequences that could have resulted in the engine disintegration that in turn could have destroyed its A380.
There remains a matrix of interrelated potential issues for the ATSB lead investigation to resolve. But inescapably, the failure of the designer, maker and maintainer of the engine to find these oil leaks and other abnormalities before last Thursday goes to the responsibilities and performance of Rolls-Royce. It also goes straight to the reliance of airline managements on such arrangements in lieu of having their own competent and vigilant maintenance arrangements.
This is already the cause of intense debate in the US including in Congress, but is totally ignored in Australia, with not a word of guidance or engagement so far from either the responsible minister, the Opposition, or CASA.
The consolidation that is occurring in core airline competencies, in maintenance and pilot training, has raced far ahead of attempts to financially consolidate carriers. It is increasingly the case that airlines cannot compete if they do not participate in the rationalisation and consolidation of some functions, in booking systems at one end of their activities, and in large maintenance and overhaul centres at another.
Yet, it makes them vulnerable to failures too, like the Virgin Blue reservations system meltdown, or the Qantas Rolls-Royce engine blow-ups, which have also involved two incidents this year with RB-211 engines maintained at a Rolls-Royce facility in Hong Kong.
Making arrangements that keep costs under control without killing a plane load of passengers is, thanks to QF32, an issue that airline managements at large will find more difficult to ignore.