Superjumbo engine failure hurts Airbus sales drive

4th November 2010, Comments 0 comments

The dramatic mid-air loss of engine power by a Qantas A380 superjumbo was a severe blow to the image of European planemaker Airbus, just as it hopes to sell dozens of jets to China.

Thursday's drama, which saw the ultramodern jet making an emergency landing in Singapore with 466 on board and smoke trailing from a broken jet engine, could hardly have come at a worse time for the French-based firm.

Airbus and its parent company EADS had hoped the expected announcement of a major Chinese contract during President Hu Jintao's visit to Paris would put an end to a streak of bad publicity surrounding its planes.

Instead, early A380 customer Qantas has grounded its fleet of the company's massive flagship, and air crash investigators are examining how some kind of explosion had knocked out the engine and severed part of its outer housing.

French flag-carrier Air France has not grounded its A380s, noting that its planes use jet engines made by Engine Alliance -- a consortium of Pratt and Wittney, General Electric and Safran.

Qantas, on the other hand, uses engines from Britain's Rolls Royce, and these are expected to come under scrutiny, along with the plane itself, which has only been in service three years and has never had a major accident.

Aviation officials have urged calm, insisting that a four-engined jet can lose one of its four jets and still land within normal emergency procedures.

But while the investigation continues, markets are nervous. In Paris, EADS shares fell 3.99 percent in a rising market. In London, Rolls Royce stock plunged by even more, losing 4.3 percent on the news.

"For pilots, an engine cutting out is not an exceptional event, even if it doesn't happen every morning," said Air France captain Eric Bernard. "What's new here is that it has happened to an A380 for the first time."

Bernard said that an experienced pilot should be able to land a plane with one engine out without drama, as appears to be the case with the Qantas crew, who turned back six minutes out of Singapore and landed without incident.

Nevertheless, industry analysts said Airbus had suffered a blow.

"It's clearly an image problem, with Qantas' fleet stuck on the deck," said one expert, speaking on condition of anonymity so as no to ruffle feathers in France's close-knit aviation industry.

"The punishment is immediate, because the markets know that this implies extra costs to get these planes into service," he said, referring to Airbus' slow delivery of the flagship A380, marked by a series of technical delays.

He nevertheless said he thought the brutal drop in EADS share price "exaggerated," given that the problem may turn out to be Rolls Royce's.

He and another expert pointed to Air France and Emirates' decision to keep flying on their Engine Alliance engines as a sign that the industry is leaning towards the suspicion that the motors and not the airframe are at fault.

Investigations are continuing into other recent Airbus incidents, including the loss last July of an Air France A330, which plunged into the Atlantic en route between Rio and Paris with the loss of all 226 people on board.

No firm cause for that crash has been established, but since the accident Airbus has ordered all customers to replace the model of air speed probe fitted on the lost jet with a newer generation model less prone to icing up.

Hu began his visit to Paris on Thursday, and EADS hopes to conclude deals for several billion dollars' worth of Airbus airliners. China Southern Airlines has already indicated it might buy 26 of them for 3.78 million dollars.

For its part, Airbus was insisting Thursday that the Singapore incident is a matter for Rolls Royce and promising the A380 delivery schedule -- including one for Qantas by the end of the year -- would remain unchanged.

© 2010 AFP

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