Qantas has caught out its arch rival Singapore Airlines this morning by indicating it is prepared to go for weeks without using the giant jets until it is convinced they are safe to fly with Rolls-Royce engines.

By contrast Singapore Airlines is left trying to convince the public that some of its A380s are safe to fly because it hasn’t yet found any faults in them.

It is, in terms of managing a crisis, one of the dumbest things Singapore Airlines has done, and one of the smartest plays from Qantas.

This is the Qantas statement of this hour:


While it may be some time before the detailed causes of the catastrophic ‘uncontained’ failure of a Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engine on a Qantas A380 are known, the failure of the PR strategies that attempted to contain the issues are becoming painfully apparent.

In fact it has only been Qantas that has shone in all of this.

The more Qantas emphasises its caution in returning the giant airliners back into service, the more kudos rain down on it for putting safety first, as well as onto the outstanding performance of the pilots who managed a very seriously compromised airliner the moment the No2 engine on the A380 operating QF32 disintegrated.

Singapore Airlines now looks like the reluctant, and less competent party to this crisis. It may not be, but it has a lot of explaining to do, following yesterday’s reversal of its position and the grounding of at least three of its A380s.

If we accept that Singapore Airlines received identical advice on tough new inspections of the Trent 900 engines as Qantas, then how did it arrive at different conclusions?

It referred to further evaluation of the test results. Yet if they were the same tests, and the same spots of oil in wrong places are only just being recognised by Singapore Airlines, how or why did they get it wrong?

Yesterday Singapore airlines wouldn’t rule out further A380 groundings. How confidence building in the public is it to appear to be dragged reluctantly to the recognition that there is a serious issue in these engines, whether run at a higher maximum thrust level, as in the case of Qantas, or lower in the case of Singapore Airlines.

Qantas can only look better in this situation, especially if Singapore Airlines is forced to ground more of its A380 fleet, because it amounts to a concession that it is belatedly discovering or recognising that some of them should not have been flying at all if as it says “passenger safety is paramount.”

For Rolls-Royce this could be very serious. Are the engines capable of modification to fix its design failings? Or do they need to be grounded indefinitely and the essentially replaced by a Mark II design? Or are they all perfectly OK?

Rolls-Royce, like other engine makers, likes to retain control over the future revenues generated by what it calls its Total Care contracts. Airlines generally favour these arrangements too, as they outsource costs, and in power-by-the-hour arrangements, give them predictable costs. But they also make the engine manufacturer the gatekeeper when it comes to things that can go wrong. In general terms, such support arrangements can inhibit the discovery of issues because warranties can be voided if the airline concerned goes outside its specified duties in terms of line maintenance and minor overhaul obligations.

Qantas has yet to reveal if its arrangements with Rolls-Royce for engine overhaul and support would have inhibited its ability of capacity to find these tiny yet significant oil leaks sooner than experiencing an in-flight crisis that imperilled a jet with 466 people on board.

Plane Talking understands that there are restrictions as to what Qantas could do to these engines of its own volition. Whether they are material or not to QF32, the issue of how total care type packages work in the future is one that airlines will need to carefully reconsider.