A winter’s start of discontent

Posted on 1 Dec 2010 by The Manufacturer

Howard Wheeldon summarises a difficult month for the aerospace key players, suffered despite their undisputed engineering excellence

That was the month that almost was! November 2010 will certainly go down as a month to forget for aerospace giants Boeing, Airbus and Rolls-Royce. Beginning with the failure of the Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engine on a Qantas A380 jet and the serious ramifications that this has subsequently caused for engine maker, aircraft manufacturer, airline operator and customer, the bad news for RR was then followed by news of yet another serious delay on the Boeing 787 ‘Dreamliner’ programme. Just to make matters even worse, seemingly well informed comment from a potential customer has it that the Airbus A350 development project is also running well behind schedule. A case of Bad Month at Black Rock then, and ignoring the handful of decent new order announcements for Rolls-Royce and the like it seems that news flow from the commercial aircraft manufacturing sector over the past three weeks has hardly been inspiring for anyone with any kind of vested interest in it. Oh, and all flights from Gatwick are cancelled this morning; it never rains, it snows.

Staying with industry though, having not been backward in its criticism of Rolls-Royce for its part in the subsequent handling of the engine problem, this weekend should see tensions between the airline and engine maker simmer down as Qantas resumes flights of one of its mighty A380 aircraft. Clearly this is welcome news and in my view marks the end of the beginning phase of sorting out what has clearly been a very damaging and expensive problem for all the various parties involved. In this day and age we as passengers take the concept of flying and aircraft safety for granted. When something goes awry such as the uncontained explosion within a Trent 900 engine, alarm bells should ring. No one was hurt of course although the aircraft was, in engineering terms, seriously damaged. We are not clear yet whether it will fly again although we suspect that it will. Attitude to safety and integrity by airline operators are crucial factors in how we as passengers define our attitude to flying today. Whilst Qantas may be accused of being somewhat vocal in the pressure it has exerted on RR it has done so for good reason to ensure that its customers retain confidence that the airline puts safety of its passenger first. In my view the aircraft manufacturer, engine maker, airline operator and the various regulators involved have between them all acted in a very responsible manner in handling the Trent 900 problem.
I have never for one moment been in any doubt that Rolls-Royce engineers would sort the Trent 900 problem out. From engineering and technical perspectives and working with both with regulators and various Trent 900 airline operators I was never in doubt that RR would get to the heart of the problem and then implement a programme of rectification on which all parties could and would of necessity agree. True, sometimes in the past I have questioned the manner of RR’s communicating skills but this time they have been ‘almost’ exemplary from an airline operator point of view. We ourselves are not yet privy to the finite detail of what particular component caused the problem of course although we do know that the European Aviation Safety Agency has ordered Trent 900 users to focus inspection on oil-service tubes within the turbine area of the engine (the actual advice, I understand, being that there should be regular ten and twenty cycle inspections of the air-buffer cavity focussing on oil service tubes within high pressure and intermediate-pressure sections of the engines). No matter what their size and power, aircraft engines are extremely complicated pieces of engineering. When through regular service use a part or component is found to be wearing sooner than had been expected invariably this will require a design engineering change. In this case we have no idea whether the problem is a design engineering, material or manufacturing problem but we do know that some of the best engineers in the United Kingdom will find a permanent solution.

Over time we may expect Rolls-Royce to draw up a plan of permanent fix to whatever the problem is and I do note expect to see a further incident of the type that resulted in the Qantas engine blow out. The incident itself will have cost Rolls-Royce many millions of pounds in terms of cost, rectification and, assuming no fault is found in terms of textbook engine operation and maintenance, compensation payments to users. We would also imagine that there may also be some delay in the supply of new Trent engines being supplied to Airbus and that this in itself is another problem that will rest heavily on the shoulders of Rolls-Royce through the next few weeks and months.

Elsewhere on the commercial aircraft map confirmation by Boeing this week that the company will now rework/redesign part of the software on the 787 ‘Dreamliner’ aircraft following a fire on board one of the test aircraft and that as a consequence both the test programme and delivery of production aircraft will be delayed may be seen as yet another blow to a long troubled programme now three years behind original schedule. For all that – having personally walked through this aircraft and watched the long process of its development in Seattle – the 787 is and will be seen as a truly fantastic aircraft. Delays though are costly for the aircraft manufacturer and the countless dozens of airlines that have agreed to buy near 850 examples of the aircraft. Meanwhile any reworking is thought likely to be minor and Boeing has already said that the most likely cause of the fire was foreign debris that caused a short circuit or electrical arc. The fire issue comes on top of a number of other issues although I understand that slowly but surely the production manufacturing schedule amongst the many partners in this troubled supplier programme are now starting to come together. Approximately two aircraft are now being produced per month. However, in the market, increasingly there is a view that the first 787 production plane will not be delivered to the launch customer the Japanese airline All Nippon until well into the second half of next year.

Setbacks to commercial aircraft development programmes are quite normal of course although rarely have they been on the scale of the 787 and the Airbus A380. Nevertheless we need to understand that the difference between delays that affected projects in yesteryear and those of today is all about technical sophistication of new product material, advanced engineering requirements, far more sophisticated design requirements not to mention more powerful regulatory requirements that are encompassed through far more vigorous certification processes that occurred forty years ago. Also remember that we live in a world that calls for transparency of information. In fact, the transparency point is even more interesting, particularly when one recalls that when airplanes such as the Boeing 747, 757, 767 were under development a company like Boeing was not obliged to provide the detailed information demanded by its shareholders today. In recent years the aircraft development scene has been dominated by the Boeing 787, the Airbus A380 and the Airbus Military A400M. All have had their own particular problems of course. Neither should we underestimate that whilst our understanding of materials and design engineering has never been greater that when a specific engineering or manufacturing problem or issue arises time is required to find the absolute right and correct solutions. Just as the Boeing 737 and 747 had done in its day, just as the fly-by-wire technology introduced by Airbus into the A330 and A340 aircraft had been, all three of the new aircraft mentioned above have or are once again attempting to break new ground in aerospace engineering technology. The lesson for aircraft manufacturers has over the years been well learned – no matter what the cost it is far better to delay than to risk permanent failure and loss of customer confidence.

This week also witnessed remarks by Emirates Airlines President Tim Clark say that he expected that development delays to the Airbus A350 competitor to the Boeing 777 and 787 aircraft could extend up to one year. Clark is not the first to highlight the potential for delay on this highly important programme development (mainly attributed to worries that the aircraft is overweight) but officially there is nothing yet in the public domain that has confirmed that the A350XWB will be delayed not service beyond the current summer 2013 target. I will not add fuel to the fire other than to agree that it would probably be wise to build in a one year delay to official targets and maybe even longer to the planned later extended versions of the plane such as the A350-1000 which is currently targeted to come into service in 2015 particularly if Airbus responds positively to some of the points raised by A350-1000 customers such as Emirates (the airline has 70 A350’s on order) requesting increased capacity and range.

Howard Wheeldon is the senior strategist for BGC Partners