Engine maker Rolls-Royce and Qantas are getting closer to agreeing that the airline can resume flights to Los Angeles using the giant Airbus A380 airliner, but the exact date remains elusive.

It may be this week, or it may not be until the new year. One thing is certain, it won’t be until Qantas is  satisfied there will be no repeat of the engine disintegration that crippled QF32 on November 4, shortly after its very first A380, with 466 persons on board, departed Singapore for Sydney.

At one stage, when Qantas filed a statement of claim against Rolls-Royce in support on an injunction in the Federal Court, the airline was looking at a worst-case scenario of never being able to use Trent 900-powered A380s to fly the Pacific routes with a full payload because of limitations on the amount of thrust the engine could safely deliver that arose from the investigation of the near disaster.

Since then two things have happened. Rolls-Royce has devised a software “fix” that will rapidly detect any similar malfunction in the core of the engine, in its high pressure/intermediate pressure turbine structure, and shut it down before it can break apart and rip into the wing, fuel tanks and control and hydraulic lines as dangerously as happened in the QF32 incident.

A source in Qantas said this interim solution would mean any such catastrophic failure was averted, and turned into a manageable engine shut-down and diversion, even over the remotest parts of the 14-hour westbound flights from LAX to Melbourne and Sydney on routes where the airline had to work the Rolls-Royce powerplants harder than any other A380 operator.

“But only provided we are completely confident this process will work,” he added.

The permanent solution, which Rolls-Royce has already alluded to in its rare public disclosures since the QF32 incident, will be a structural modification to the most recent versions of the Trent 900s now back in service on the Qantas A380s flying the less-power-hungry routes to London.

While Qantas has  the interim and longer-term solutions clearly in sight, the language of the statement-of-claim-in-waiting is that of an aggrieved customer that didn’t get the product promised by a marketing exercise that appears to have been out of touch with the reality of what it was delivering.

The claim alleges that Rolls-Royce may have been “misleading or deceptive” in its representations when it proposed its Trent 900 powerplant to the carrier.

It claims that the engine manufacturer had given the representation that “the A380 aircraft operated by Qantas could, if powered by Trent 900 engines, be operated regularly and reliably on Qantas’ existing international routes (including the LAX routes) with a profitable payload and without the engines having to be replaced at any point before the end of the projected useful engine life”.

In the bigger picture, the Qantas fleet strategy on which its future depends had been harmed by two marketing campaigns that did not reflect engineering reality, the other being the perennially delayed Boeing 787 Dreamliner, a supposedly ultra-lightweight, ultra-long-range plastic airliner also allegedly capable of flying 303 passengers non-stop across the Pacific or between Singapore and European cities.

A month has now passed since Boeing promised an update within a few weeks on the status of the program since a Dreamliner prototype caught fire while approaching Laredo airport in Texas, leading to the continued grounding of the all of the test and certification fleet.

Boeing has not been able to explain why the power distribution system under the rear floor of the cabin emulated an electric arc furnace before the jet touched down and was evacuated.

But it has conceded that one of the selling points of the 787s, a high humidity cabin atmosphere, has caused significant issues with moisture accumulation inside the test Dreamliner.

A redesign of the electrical architecture of the Dreamliners to insulated them from this wet air would be another nightmare for Qantas in terms of its fleet and network expansion plans.

Peter Fray

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