Airbus offers mea culpa on A380

Airbus paraded a series of senior executives to apologise to airlines and passengers for the costs and disruptions caused by wing-cracking problems on its A380 superjumbo.

Tom Enders, the Airbus president and chief executive. Reuters
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Airbus paraded a series of senior executives, including its outgoing and incoming chief executives, to apologise to airlines and passengers for the costs and disruptions caused by wing-cracking problems on its A380 superjumbo.

In the course of a two-day event to showcase the European plane maker's technology innovations, Airbus assured the industry that a fix had been found for the problem on aircraft already delivered, and that design and manufacturing changes had been introduced on the assembly line to ensure the problem does not occur on aircraft still to be delivered.

Airbus also used the event, at its base in Toulouse, France, to defend its new generation of carbon-fibre constructed aircraft, the A350. Delivery dates for the model have been badly affected by design changes aimed at making it more competitive against Boeing's carbon-fibre jet, the 787 Dreamliner, and a new, extended-range version of the Boeing 777. "The story of the A380's problems has been extremely embarrassing for Airbus, and a problem for our customers," admitted Fabrice Brégier, the chief operating officer of Airbus, and chief executive-designate.

"It has been extremely irritating and disruptive and not good for Airbus's reputation," said Tom Enders, who steps down as the company's president and chief executive later this year to take up a similar role with the parent company, EADS.

"We thought we knew everything there was to know about integrating new materials with traditional design. We didn't. It has cost the company dearly," he said.

Tom Williams, the executive vice president for programmes, who was responsible for the production of the A380, said two types of cracking had been discovered internally in the A380's wing structures during routine maintenance. Type one, he described as "micro", and type two as "more serious". Neither, however, had endangered the airworthiness of the aircraft or was a safety issue.

"But they had forced us to impose a more stringent inspection regime," said Mr Williams.

The problems are confined to two areas of the wing, at the junction of carbon-fibre and aluminium parts. They arose as a result of a new heat-treatment process causing "some brittleness" in the aluminium parts, and the stresses caused by changes in temperature and pressures when the aircraft went into service.

"Our new solutions [to the problems] will be applied from the beginning of 2013," added Mr Williams. "The fix for A380s in service will require the affected areas to be cut out and replaced … for new aircraft, we have redesigned and introduced new processes. It will add about 90 kilos to the weight of the aircraft.

"We will also update our modelling and testing. We did not see this coming first time, but we won't be making the same mistake again."

A total of 74 A380s have been delivered so far to seven airlines, including Emirates Airline, which already has 21 in service. However, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways have both said they are deferring delivery of their ordered A380s until a fix for the problems has been found and tested to ensure the problems do not recur. Addressing prospects for the new A350, especially its longer-range 1000 version, John Leahy,the chief operating officer for customers, said the redesign behind the delay would deliver a far superior performance.

However, Akbar Al Baker, the chief executive of Qatar Airways, the launch customer for the A350 with 80 ordered, has strongly rebuked Airbus for what he called its "ineptitude" over the design of the A350. And Etihad, has cancelled 13 of the original order for 25 A350s.

Airbus has insisted its approach has been correct. The aircraft's payload would be increased by 4.5 tonnes, and its range with an optimum load of 369 passengers would be extended by 400 nautical miles (nm) to almost 8,400nm - and all of it achieved burning 25 per cent less fuel.

"Boeing has tried to convince everyone their Boeing 777 is the only game in town," said Mr Leahy. "But that's only until we get the 350-1000 delivered. We carried out our improvements because we looked at the Boeing 777-ER and the 787, and we wanted to deliver a better aircraft. And now we will."

Airbus also used the event to showcase other innovations. One idea is "taxibots", small tow trucks capable of being controlled from the cockpit by the pilot and able to tow the aircraft from stand to runway before the pilot has to start the engines, thus saving up to 4 per cent of the fuel an aircraft might use on one trip.

Another makes use of Airbus's wider fuselages, by offering airlines the option for wider aisle seats - 21 inches compared to the standard 17 inches - to accommodate the overweight. Airbus said airlines expressing an interest were all, "North American".

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