PARIS — Many wondered whether the world’s largest passenger plane would ever be born.
Skeptics called the 7-story-tall Airbus A380 too big and ambitious when it was just a blueprint. There were wiring snafus and debilitating management disputes. Time and again, the planemaker announced delays, exasperating investors and costing the company billions.
The A380 surmounted the problems, made its first passenger flight in 2007 and even became something of a celebrity — a roomy, smooth and quiet jetliner sought out by many business travelers and aviation enthusiastics.
Now the world’s newest and costliest jetliner is facing a new challenge: a risk of oil leaks from a flaw in as many as 40 of the Rolls-Royce engines that power much of the global fleet of A380s. The scale of the problem became public after a Qantas A380 engine blew apart in an oil fire on Nov. 4. The metal shrapnel blasted holes in the wing; damaging a structural beam, cutting control lines, piercing two fuel tanks and setting off an unprecedented cascade of system failures.
Aviation experts said the plane’s strength and its pilots’ skill helped bring it down safely with more than 450 passengers aboard. But they also said the design and location of electrical wiring in the wings would likely have to be reconsidered.
Airbus said the need to temporarily replace dozens of engines while the potentially leaky part is replaced could cause more delays for deliveries of the superjumbo. Some deliveries could be pushed from the first half of 2011 to the second, analysts said.
The incident will “probably slow things down a bit” in terms of Airbus’ production and delivery schedule for the aircraft, said Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst at Teal Group. “They will probably miss a few deliveries.”
The Rolls-Royce engines equip 21 of the 39 A380s currently in operators’ fleets. The rest are powered by motors built by the Engine Alliance, a 50/50 joint venture between GE Aircraft Engines and Pratt & Whitney, which are currently used by Emirates and Air France.
Airbus spokesman Justin Dubon acknowledged that the Qantas incident was the A380’s most significant problem so far. But he defended the aircraft’s record, saying there were teething problems with any new program.
And Airbus isn’t the only company to struggle with a high-profile new plane. Boeing has had a string of troubles with developing its much-awaited and much-delayed 787 Dreamliner, and is probably watching the fallout of the Qantas incident carefully.
Analysts say the cost of the A380 is daunting to airlines after the last couple of bruising years in the aviation industry. The plane has a sticker price of nearly $350 million. But passengers adore the plane, which allows passengers to stretch their legs, and barely notice when the plane lets go of the ground or rejoins it.
Some versions of the plane can seat over 800 people. Gulf airline Emirates’ A380s boast private suites in first class with beds, flat screen TVs and two shower spas.
“You go to any airshow, and there could be jet fighters swooping through the air, but everyone stops to watch the A380,” said Sandy Morris, an aviation industry analyst at RBS Securities in London.
The 10,000-strong audience at the A380’s triumphal 2005 unveiling ceremony included French, German and British leaders. When the first finished A380 was finally handed over to launch customer Singapore Airlines, a crowd of VIPs gasped as they took a first glimpse inside at the jet’s petal-strewn double beds furnished with duvets and cushions by French fashion house Givenchy.
The A380’s star power can work against it, as the Qantas incident shows.
The attention garnered by the incident “is extraordinary” when compared with the crash landing of a Boeing 777 into London’s Heathrow airport in January, 2008, an accident which injured 19 people among the 152 passengers and crew on board, Morris said. For him, there’s only one explanation. “It’s the A380 effect.”
All the glamour couldn’t make air travel enthusiasts or investors forget the aircraft’s troubled birthing process, though.
The workload of making one A380 is equivalent to eight of the single-aisle A320, Airbus’ most popular jet. A series of technical problems and management errors led to almost two years of delay in the A380’s first delivery. Those delays combined with spiraling development costs wiped billions from Airbus profits.
A snafu involving the jet’s wiring meant that hundreds of miles of cables in each jet had to be replaced. That development slashed the market valuation of Airbus parent company EADS NV by a quarter in one day in June 2006, a day seen as a turning point for the Franco-German company.
Amid development of the A380 and the mid-size A350 XWB, Airbus went through five CEOs in two years, and imposed a restructuring plan to cut 10,000 jobs and sell off plants in France, Germany and Britain.
The A380 met with glitches in passing to new serial production techniques, and repeatedly fell short of delivery goals.
Qantas CEO Alan Joyce has nonetheless called the A380, of which his airline has ordered 20, “one of the most, if not the most, successful introductions into service of an aircraft program to Qantas.”
Until investigators find out more about what happened Nov. 4, however, his passengers won’t get the thrill of boarding Airbus’ colossus of the skies. His airline has grounded all six of its A380s.