Oil leaks keep Qantas A380 jets grounded

By Greg Ansley

Even as he dashed hopes of an early return to the skies for his airline's flagship fleet of Airbus A380s, Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce last night turned vice to virtue.

Qantas may be taking a hammering on the stockmarket, analysts may be warning of a heavy hit to its global brand, passengers may still be struggling to get home, and the costs may still be rising.

But to Joyce, the airline's response to the series of blows it has suffered since the first A380 it put into service two years ago limped, trailing smoke, back to Singapore last week has burnished its reputation.

He said the number of passengers who had said they would "absolutely" be flying Qantas again - he claimed some said they would only fly Qantas in the future - demonstrated the regard they held for the airline.

"I think a lot of our customers see, with Qantas grounding [its six A380] aircraft despite the commercial and financial implications, that this shows our commitment to safety," Joyce said yesterday.

"Again, I think it's a credit to our organisation that we're putting safety before anything else."

Those commercial and financial implications are likely to be daunting.

Apart from the operational losses and the cost of housing thousands of passengers in hotels in Singapore, Los Angeles and London, and the implications of diverting some flights and chartering others, Qantas shares have dived about 3 per cent since the casing of one of QF32's engines disintegrated over the Indonesian island of Batam.

Qantas shares have fallen from A$2.89 on Thursday to A$2.79 at the close of trading yesterday.

Joyce said the most likely cause was a materials failure or a design flaw in the huge Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engine, which could land the British manufacturer with a huge legal bill.

For the present Joyce said the focus was on finding the problem and that any consideration of compensation was much further down the track.

But the real news that Joyce announced yesterday was that, despite hopes of a rapid return to service of the airline's five other A380s, the fleet would remain on the ground for at least another three days after engineers discovered oil leaks in the turbine area of three engines on three different A380s.

"Qantas will not return its A380 fleet to service until confident the issues have been identified and resolved," Joyce said.

Joyce had earlier told ABC radio that checks recommended by Rolls-Royce had uncovered problems with three A380 engines, found on A380s parked at Sydney and Los Angeles.

"On three of the engines what we have found is slight anomalies - oil where oil shouldn't be on the engines - and we are just trying to check what the cause of that could be," he said.

"These are new engines on new aircraft.

"They shouldn't have these issues at this stage so it's given us an indication of an area for us to focus on."

The affected engines will be replaced.

The A380's engine failure was important because it was the first of its kind to affect the world's largest airliner, and because it was "uncontained" - meaning that it led to the fragmentation of the casing.

Debris punched holes in the wing, the outer engine on the same wing could not be shut down as a result, and parts of the engine crashed down on Batam, some close to built-up areas.

Worse for Qantas, the drama aboard QF32 not only caught global attention, but was followed the next day by a warning light on another of its jets forcing it to make a priority landing at London's Heathrow airport, and on Saturday by another engine failure on a Boeing 747 flying out of Singapore.

The commercial, engineering and public relations problems have been compounded by industrial sniping, with Qantas exchanging shots with the Licensed Aircraft Engineers Association over implications that the airline is compromising safety by sending maintenance work overseas.

Yesterday the Australian and International Pilots Association joined the fray, claiming that the professionalism and skill that had ensured the airliners' safe returns was being put at risk by cost-cutting.

Passengers, meanwhile, are still trying to get home.

"We will look after passengers in light of our status as a premium airline," Joyce said.

The airline is diverting airliners and using chartered jets for extra services to Los Angeles, and yesterday expected to clear the backlog there last night, local time.

- NZ Herald

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