Qantas A380: Rolls-Royce Faces Uncertain Future After Engine Failures

Last Updated Nov 11, 2010 3:17 PM EST

As has been suspected since the spectacular engine failure on a Qantas flight from Singapore to Sydney last week, the investigation has more clearly focused on Rolls-Royce and its Trent 900 engines having an oil leak. This is already a major concern for Rolls-Royce, but it has the potential to become a tremendous crisis for the company, especially considering that it has been having problems with its new Trent 1000 engines for the 787 as well.

Qantas and Singapore Airlines have both identified aircraft that need engine changes and are performing the work. Singapore has grounded those airplanes until the work is done but the rest of the fleet remains flying. For Qantas, the fleet remains grounded completely. It appears Qantas isn't expecting the A380 to go back into service until the end of the month, though it's possible that could change. Meanwhile, the only other A380 operator using the Trent 900, Lufthansa, is making an engine change but it says it's unrelated to the oil leaks that appear to be the cause of engine issues at the other airlines.

At this point, airlines have been able to adjust their schedules to accommodate passengers and the focus now turns to the problem itself and what it means in the long run. It's going to be a very tough road for Rolls-Royce.

Singapore and Qantas have only operated their airplanes for a couple of years and engine changes are already necessary. Even more concerning is that Lufthansa has only been flying A380s since June. The disruption is going to cost a lot of money and I would assume that the financial burden will shift to Rolls-Royce. Will airlines feel comfortable continuing to operate the Rolls engine on the A380? So far yes, but we'll see what happens with future orders.

Let's look at the current slate of engines that Rolls is offering and you'll see that it's in danger of getting shut out of the market if it can't right the ship soon.

In the long haul world, the 777, 787, and A350 are expected to dominate future orders. While Rolls does have engines on the 777, newer 777s only come with General Electric (GE) options. The Trent 1000 is meant to go on the 787 but it has, like the Trent 900, experienced a catastrophic failure in testing. The Trent XWB is meant to go on the A350, but that program is still relatively far out.

On the short haul fleet, Rolls does not provide engines for the 737 and is only a member of a consortium with Pratt & Whitney among others that provides engines for the A320. So for Rolls, the real future is in the long haul market.

But will airlines want to continue ordering Rolls engines after its Trent 900 and Trent 1000 have both experienced major failures? What's worse is that Rolls has determined that the failures on those two engines are "unconnected." You would think that a single problem leading to both failures would be more comforting than two major but completely separate issues.

We'll have to see how airlines react. There is always tolerance for some teething problems with relatively new engines, but major failures costing millions of dollars that result in a PR black eye for the airline are not going to be tolerated by many. Rolls is going to need to do some major relationship-repairing after this and hope that it doesn't lose too much business.

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Photo via Wikimedia Commons user David Monniaux/CC-BY-SA-3.0