Although media statements by Rolls-Royce on its Trent 900 issues have yet to amount to more than a single A4 page of double spaced type, a number of firm conclusions can be drawn from the documents tendered in court in Australia and the last ATSB update on engine inspections.

One of these is that the fault is systemic and not a the result of a one off defect, since it was present in at least three engines.

If we accept the Rolls-Royce claims that it had no prior knowledge of this defect, but was quietly changing engine builds for unrelated reasons, then its knowledge and quality control in relation to this product was such that a fault that nearly had catastrophic consequences for the A380 operating QF32 on November 4 continued to be delivered to or used by its customers until at least December 7, the day before the ATSB revealed that three out of 45 engines inspected were flawed.

One of these engines was on a brand new A380 being prepared for delivery to Qantas this month.

The enormity of the Rolls-Royce admission seems to have escaped some analysts, but apparently not Qantas. The only conclusion that flows from this situation is that the quality control of the Rolls-Royce product was up until that point, ignorant of and incapable of detecting a fault that could kill on a very large scale.

For Rolls-Royce to stay in the game with the Trent 900 it is reasonable to conclude that it must restructure and reform to a far higher standard its quality control, so that it knows a defective engine when it sees one, and that it doesn’t deliver it to an airline. Ever again.

For Rolls-Royce to plead ignorance of the short comings of its own product is nothing short of astonishing. What is going on in this company that such a situation could have arisen?

Rolls-Royce also needs to convince Qantas, and from next year, Singapore Airlines, that the Trent 900 can be used at a rating of 72,000 lbs thrust or more  rather than 70,000 lbs so that both airlines can use their A380s economically non-stop on the longest of trans Pacific flights.  Singapore Airlines will introduce the A380 to the US west coast next year via another stop in Asia. It seems that it can’t do that at the lower thrust rating from Hong Kong but may be able to do so from Seoul.

The question has been asked repeatedly as to whether the Rolls-Royce engines could be replaced by the Engine Alliance power plant made by GE and Pratt & Whitney in partnership and used in Australia for example by Emirates on its A380 services.  The answer is Yes and No. Plane Talking had it wrong earlier in the year when it believed the change over from one type for the other was too hard, but in fact, the A380 was designed at the outset to make it easier ( but not easy) to do this, with a view to increasing the versatility of the jet for lessors, which is also why the Boeing 787 is designed to make it easy to change its Rolls-Royce engines for GE engines, depending on the customer preference of an airline seeking to lease some Dreamliners.

However the Engine Alliance powerplant is not offered at a rating of 72,000 lbs, so it is not an option for the longest trans Pacific routes.

It is noteworthy that the wing of the A380, and the currently unused central fuel tank architecture, anticipate the use of future more powerful engines, full fuel loadings, and possible stretches of the fuselage, to create a version that will fly even further with a higher payload.

That means that Rolls-Royce and the Engine Alliance will be faced with the need for greatly revised engines if not all new ones if they are to contest that market. Some time after 2015-16.

Reading between the lines in the competition that has broken out between GE and P&W in new technology engines for the Airbus A320 NEO, they may want to offer their own new designs for future versions of the A380  rather than persevere with their jointly owned Engine Alliance.

For Rolls-Royce staying in the A380 market as the next version of that jet comes over the horizon will be additionally costly, since it will one way or another, pay a very high price for the current engine issue fixes, as well as through coming up with something that will be competitive against a new engine offering from elsewhere.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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