Quantas Grounds The A380, A Pilot’s Perspective

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The Airbus A380 is widely regarded in aviation as a technical achievement, yet a financial disaster.    Airbus has successfully built the largest passenger aircraft in the world, yet sold a relatively few number of them.   Worse, production delays have meant that a precious few are being delivered every year.   In the last three years since it’s introduction to passenger service, only 38 have been delivered, out of a total of only 234 ordered.   By comparison, Boeing delivered over 160 747 aircraft in it’s first three years of production.   If Airbus delivers the remaining 196 aircraft it has on order in the next ten years, it will still have built less than half of the number of Boeing 747s than were built during the first 13 years of it’s production.

The A380 In Service

Nevertheless, there are five airlines that currently operate the aircraft, Singapore, Qantas, Emirates, Lufthansa, and Air France.     These airlines seemed pleased with the aircraft and it’s anemic sales have been blamed on a smaller than expected market for aircraft seating over 500 passengers, as well as it’s limited cargo capacity.   Passengers love the airplane.  With it’s spacious aisles and headroom to it’s near silent cabin, people often go out of their way to book a flight on this plane.

While I have not yet had the privilege of flying on this plane, I was fortunate enough to see a demonstration of it’s capabilities last year at the Airventure gathering in Oshkosh Wisconsin.   It was an impressive demonstration, despite the hard landing I witnessed during a challenging crosswind.

The A380 Out Of Service

On November 4th, 2010, an A380 operated by Qantas experienced an engine failure on departure from Singapore, enroute to Sydney.     With jet engines, there are two types of failures, contained and contained.    Contained engine failures are the most common as well as the least serious.   This is when the engine shuts down without any parts protruding from the engine shroud, called a nacelle.    Parts may come loose or be ejected safely from the tail pipe, yet the failure is still considered “contained.    For example, US Airways flight 1549, the “miracle on the Hudson” experienced the contained engine failure of both of its engines after they ingested birds.

By contrast, an uncontained engine failure is a very rare and serious event.  In an uncontained engine failure, the fan blades or other components come loose at a velocity sufficient  to exit the side of the engine, possibly penetrating the cabin or damaging other parts of the aircraft.  Aircraft are designed to withstand an uncontained failure as much as is feasible, yet they can still cause enough damage to take down an airplane.   For example, on July 19, 1989 United flight 232 experienced an uncontained engine failure that severed the hydraulics that control the aircraft.   While the pilots used the thrust of the engines to steer the airplane and attempt a landing in Souix City Iowa, a crash occurred, killing 172 of the 285 people on board.

The A380 incident was an uncontained engine failure, with parts of the engine nacelle falling on a populated area.   There are even pictures of the wing that appear to have an engine piece protruding through it.    Thankfully, the aircraft landed safely and no one was injured.   In response, Qantas has grounded its entire fleet of aircraft, snarling its schedule for thousands of passengers.

Should You Be Concerned?

First, it is important to know that there are essentially two kinds of A380s flying.   Some have the Rolls Royce Trent engines, and some have powerplants from Engine Alliance, and consortium of General Electric and Pratt & Whitney.   All Qantas aircraft have the Trent engines, as do the A380s of Singapore and Lufthansa.     As of this writing, Singapore is temporarily suspending A380 operations, while Lufthansa is performing safety checks, but is still not halting operations.   Air France and Emirates fly the version with engines from Engine Alliance.

You can think of a jet engine kind of like the lens on a high end camera.   Aircraft are ordered from the airframe manufacturer, but the engines, like camera lenses, are considered a separate purchase.    Failure of one manufacturer’s engine is not relevant to the operation of another manufacturer’s engine.   If you or someone you know is planning on flying an Air France or Emirates, A380, this event is completely inconsequential to the safety of their flight.

If I was considering flying an A380 of Lufthansa, Singapore, or even Qantas, I still would not give it a second thought.   It so happens that these three airlines are among the safest in the world.    For example, Qantas has never had a fatality on a jet aircraft, and it has been nearly sixty years since they have had any fatality at all.   The fact that the most recent incident, though serious, resulted in no injuries or loss of life is a testament to the safety of the A380 and the professionalism of the crew.   By grounding their A380 aircraft fleet, Qantas is going out of their way to ensure that their safety record remains immaculate.   When they decide to restart A380 operations, I would be glad to be a passenger.

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One Response to “Quantas Grounds The A380, A Pilot’s Perspective”

  1. Eric Says:

    Very interesting post Jason!

    I had the pleasure of flying on an A380 Quantas flight from LA to Sydney in February 2009 in business class. It was definitely the most memorable aircraft I have been on in my entire life. I hope you get the chance to be on one soon…you’ll love it!

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