The safety regulator CASA is understood to be reviewing a series of in flight failures by Rolls-Royce RB211 engines mounted on Qantas Boeing 747-400s following the latest incident last weekend which forced a flight from Johannesburg to Sydney to return to the airport.

The guidance given to the media by Qantas is also in serious doubt following a report in today’s Sydney Morning Herald which gives an eye-witness account of the incident.

Fatuous statements by Qantas about how safe the airliner is on three engines appear to deliberately overlook the fact that the loss of an engine for any reason is an immediate safety of flight issue, which is why the flight returned to Johannesburg.

An example of these disingenuous media statements by Qantas  is illustrated below, in a passenger image of an RB211 engine Qantas claimed had not caught fire when it experienced an uncontained failure last August just after a take off from San Francisco to Sydney.

Passenger image of engine that Qantas said didn't catch fire at near SFO last year

At that time Qantas not only claimed there was no fire, but that there was no uncontained failure of the engine, yet the ATSB’s factual interim report said the uncontained failure was such that it damaged the flaps on one wing.

That particular ATSB investigation continues.

The airline’s statements also fail to deal with the rise in such incidents on its RR powered 747s, and make claims about ‘accelerated’ modifications which have left three quarters of the engines unmodified. With such urgency, how many more RB211 failures will occur and more importantly, where?

Rolls-Royce was flayed by Qantas CEO Alan Joyce last year for leaving it in the dark over a modification program for the more powerful Trent 900 engines fitted to its A380 after one of them disintegrated on departure from Singapore for Sydney in  November.

Qantas lost its in house capabilities for the heavy maintenance and modification of RB211 engines last year when it closed its dedicated Rolls-Royce shop at Sydney and sent that work to a  facility in Hong Kong.

Plane Talking has been following the peculiar lack of urgency Qantas has shown concerning RB211 engines for some time.

Here is a sample of the reports, starting with one that happened in Bangkok this January:

There is something grievously wrong with the Qantas response to the frequency with which the Rolls-Royce RB211 engines fitted to its Boeing 747-400 fleet are failing.According to Qantas, in what is now a rut it has trodden about four times this month, the failures have nothing to do with the outsourcing of the heavy maintenance of these engines to a Rolls-Royce centre of excellence in Hong Kong.

They are purely coincidental and do not come with safety implications.

These claims are dangerous nonsense from an airline that has filed a fierce indictment of the conduct of Rolls-Royce in a statement of claims in the Federal Court in relation to the Trent 900 engines fitted to its Airbus A380s following the serious in flight failure of one of them operating QF32 from Singapore to Sydney last November 4.

It’s the same company.

And another, also in Bangkok in May:

Qantas flight QF1  a Boeing 747-400 has returned to Bangkok this morning after one of its Rolls-Royce RB211 engines failed.There is no immediate replacement engine available and around 300 or more passengers are for at least the short term stranded.

But from the outset this is no ‘ordinary’ engine failure. It is much more serious. Since Qantas closed its specialist RB211 maintenance and overhaul shop at Sydney it has experienced an increased incidence of failures from the engines which are now handled in a Rolls-Royce facility in Hong Kong.

Sources in Qantas say the issue is not the quality of work at the Hong Kong facility, which carries out all the actions Rolls-Royce deems necessary for the aging engine design, but that it doesn’t do the special things the Sydney facility did to them to keep them working reliably to the unique needs of Qantas RB211 operations.

Qantas use the engine on very long range non-stop oceanic routes as well as the kangaroo routes to London. No other airlines does.  The loss of the unique experience in making these engines work as Qantas intended is a serious indictment of the poor technical competence of Qantas management, and its doctrinal rather than case by case assessment of measures to cut costs.

There are a number of very serious RB211 failures on Qantas jets on recent flights under investigation by the ATSB including one last winter on a 747-400 departing San Francisco for the 14 hour trans Pacific flight.

For how much longer is this farce going to continue?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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