Qantas to return A380s to service

Image: A Qantas A380 jumbo jet sits idle on the tarmacc
A Qantas A380 jumbo jet sits idle on the tarmac Nov. 8. in front of the Qantas hangars at Los Angeles International Airport. Mario Anzuoni / Reuters file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Qantas said Tuesday it will resume flying some of its A380 superjumbos this weekend, ending a self-imposed flight ban after a massive in-flight engine failure prompted a global safety review.

CEO Alan Joyce said two of Qantas' existing fleet of six Airbus superjumbos would be brought back into service, flying between Sydney and London via Singapore. Two more A380s that the airline will take delivery of before Christmas would begin taking passengers as soon as they are ready.

The rest of Qantas' fleet will remain on the ground, as engineers continue checks and switching out engines and parts to modify the Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engines of the type that disintegrated shortly after a Qantas plane took off from Singapore on Nov. 4.

Qantas is also keeping its direct A380 flights from Australia to Los Angeles suspended because they use the maximum amount of engine thrust, which adds stress to the engines. Joyce said this was a precaution in line with Qantas' conservative approach to safety.

The decision to return two planes to the air follows exhaustive checks and fixes in consultation with Airbus and Rolls-Royce, the maker of the Trent 900 engine that failed.

"After those extensive checks with Airbus and Rolls-Royce we are completely comfortable with the operation of the aircraft," Joyce told a news conference in Sydney. "The aircraft have been grounded now for 19 days, and we believe it is appropriate to start the services this week."

Investigators say leaking oil caught fire in the Qantas engine on Nov. 4 and heated metal parts, causing them to disintegrate before the jetliner returned safely to Singapore with 466 people aboard. Experts say chunks of flying metal cut hydraulics and an engine-control line in the wing of the A380, causing a cascade of problems including the loss of control of a second engine and some braking power, fuel leaks and more than 50 on-board warnings.

It was the most serious safety scare for the world's largest and newest jetliners, and prompted Qantas to ground its fleet. Other airlines using the Trent 900 engine aboard A380s, Singapore Airlines and Germany's Lufthansa, also briefly grounded some planes while safety checks were carried out.

Between them, the three airlines fly 20 A380s with four Trent 900 engines apiece.

Three other Qantas A380s are still waiting for new engines or parts that would be switched out before they were returned to service. The sixth is still in Singapore where investigators are poring over damage to the engine and to flight systems that were hit by shrapnel that flew off when the engine blew.

Joyce said Qantas had removed 16 engines from its A380 fleet to complete checks and fixes to satisfy its engineers the planes are safe to fly.

One theory about a possible contributing factor to the Qantas engine failure is that the airline uses greater thrust during takeoff on its longest-haul flights across the Pacific Ocean because they carry a greater fuel load.

Joyce said Qantas was reducing the thrust settings for the planes returning to service and was keeping the longest flights — from Sydney and Melbourne to Los Angeles — suspended for the time being.

In a statement, Qantas said it was an "operational decision," not a directive from the manufacturer, and that pilots would still have access to maximum certified thrust if they needed it during flights.

"We are voluntarily reducing the thrust of the aircraft, and making sure that we don't operate out of LA until we have sufficient information going forward about the performance of engines as we put them back into service," Joyce said.