A really bad air day

The world’s top plane-makers are pushing bold new aircraft designs and increasingly paying a price for it

A really bad air day

David Loh/Reuters

It’s an exciting time to be a commercial airline, arguably less so to be a passenger. Both of the world’s biggest plane-makers, Boeing Co. and Airbus, are rolling out all-new aircraft designs that promise more capabilities and cheaper operating costs than their predecessors. But, as has recently been demonstrated in spectacular fashion, the price of building a game-changing jetliner is never-before-encountered problems.

Last month, a Qantas Airways-owned Airbus A380, a double-decker behemoth first introduced in 2007, was forced to make an emergency landing in Singapore after one of its Rolls-Royce engines not only failed, but blew apart, damaging several key on-board systems. No one was hurt, but an investigation by Australian authorities highlighted the hair-raising challenges faced by the pilots as they tried to control the crippled airliner amid a cacophony of blaring alarms and flashing indicators.

Boeing, meanwhile, recently learned of a potentially serious problem on board its 787 “Dreamliner,” which has yet to enter into service, after a fire broke out in a power distribution panel during a test flight in November. The test fleet was temporarily grounded, raising the possibility of further delays for a program that is already nearly three years behind schedule.

Both Boeing and Airbus have moved quickly to offer reassurances that the planes are safe (Airbus has said it’s satisfied with how Rolls-Royce is handling the engine problem), but some still wonder whether the demands of today’s airlines—for bigger planes or those that can fly further using less fuel—are pushing manufacturers to the limit. “It’s like the 1960s in terms of ambitions and overreach,” says Richard Aboulafia, the vice-president of U.S. aerospace consulting firm the Teal Group. He adds that while plane-makers have historically managed to avoid tragic consequences, they haven’t always managed to deliver on their promises. “The difference is [aerospace] companies are now run by accountants, not engineers, and the ever-increasing pressure of shareholder capitalism hasn’t done engineering departments any favours.”

In the case of the Qantas A380 incident, the culprit appeared to be a crack in a pipe that fed oil into the engine. It sounds relatively minor until you consider the amount of thrust needed to move a seven-storey plane down the runway (the equivalent to the power of 3,500 cars), and the fact that the interior of each Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engine burns at temperatures up to 2,000° C. There’s little room for error. Rolls-Royce, though, says it’s confident it has identified the problem and is working on a fix. Qantas, meanwhile, has returned two of its A380s to the air while four others remain grounded for further tests. The engine scare, which potentially affects about half of all the A380s in world, is the latest in a long list of setbacks for the A380 program; Airbus was forced to delay its first delivery to Singapore Airlines by two years because of wiring problems and management disputes within parent company EADS.

Similarly, Boeing was unable to meet its original 787 schedule, which was supposed to see the first planes delivered to airline customers in 2008. The company has faced parts shortages, redesigns and unexpected challenges relating to the extensive use of lightweight composite materials in place of aircraft-grade aluminum. And last month’s on-board fire has experts speculating that the timing of Boeing’s first 787 delivery to Japan’s All Nippon Airways during the first quarter of 2011 will once again be pushed back.

Compounding the engineering challenges have been self-induced organizational headaches. In a bid to offset the risk of spending billions on an all-new aircraft design, Boeing adopted a business model for the 787 that shares the risk of designing and building an all-new airplane among hundreds of key suppliers. The downside, however, is that it can be tough to make sure all of the groups are operating on the same page. “Boeing has had some problems with getting all the partners on board,” according to Rick Erickson, an independent aviation analyst in Calgary.

Similarly, EADS faced its own logistical problems building the A380, which required different sections of the plane to be manufactured in different European countries and then shipped by sea and air for final assembly in France. The result was a series of embarrassing glitches and delays that ultimately escalated to political infighting between governments.

Erickson, however, says it’s far from unusual to experience setbacks when you’re designing state-of-the-art aircraft. Besides, he argues that it’s ultimately a small price to pay for a superior travel experience over the next two to three decades. “Once the planes are flying, we won’t even remember it.” Or at least those nervous fliers among us will be trying hard not to.

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