Analysis
A380 - Resized_0

Airbus A380 In Service

Since entering into service in 2007, Airbus’ A380 – dubbed "a premium hotel in the sky" by its largest customer, Emirates – has proven popular with both operators and passengers. Hannah Davies looks at the aircraft’s reliability and technical innovations, and asks MROs, component suppliers and manufacturers how well the market has adapted to this immense widebody.

The “combined force of Airbus know-how and the operational experience of air transport industry actors allowed us to create the most advanced widebody aircraft in operation today,” says Constantin Ryjenkov, A380 product marketing manager at the manufacturer. “Right from the beginning, all major air transport industry actors were deeply involved in the aircraft design,” he says, enabling Airbus to produce an aircraft based exactly on what the market wanted.

Indeed, introducing: new passenger comfort standards; reduced noise levels; lower fuel consumption, emissions and maintenance costs; and improved load factors, the A380 presents itself as a near-perfect aircraft for operators.

However, the past few years have seen the A380’s reliability questioned as wing crack and engine failures have emerged. Now in its sixth year of service, and with 262 orders from 19 customers and 97 aircraft currently in service with nine operators, the A380 has overcome its early maintenance issues and become not only a technical and innovative but reliable next-generation aircraft.

Teething troubles

Designed to be an economically friendly and ground-breaking aircraft, the A380 incorporates the “latest advances in structures and materials”, according to Airbus, with 25 per cent of its airframe made up of advanced materials. These include: advanced aluminium alloys; carbon, glass, plastic, and quartz fibre reinforced plastic; and a glass reinforced fibre metal laminate called ‘Glare’. All are used to achieve weight reduction and offer better damage resistance compared to other aircraft.

However, whilst attempting to set a new benchmark with its design and concept, the A380, like most new aircraft, fell victim to early maintenance issues. Reports of hairline cracks on the wing rib feet of the aircraft emerged last year, first sighted after a fleet-wide inspection was ordered by Qantas following a fault with one of its Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engines. Reports suggested that the cracks were caused by a manufacturing process and the aluminium alloy and heat treatment used during it, making the components too brittle.

“The root causes of the findings on some wing rib feet have been identified. We’ve developed, installed, extensively flight tested, and are certificating the solution,” says Geert Lemaire, maintenance marketing director at Airbus. The solution will be incorporated into new production aircraft due for delivery in 2014, whilst repairs on in-service aircraft began in December 2012 “by means of a modification-kit”, says Lemaire.

“Various options have been developed to schedule the implementation of the modification on the in-service aircraft”, for example, “the embodiment can be done in combination with planned scheduled maintenance events such as C checks and/or structures checks,” says Lemaire, giving operators more flexibility. Lufthansa Technik (LHT) has taken advantage of the retrofit downtimes by “implementing special engine and airframe modification packages”, thus minimising future downtimes, according to Christian Rieckborn, A380 fleet manager at the German MRO.      

Although the wing cracks "will result in more workload,” comments Jean-Luc Fournel, COO customers at Sabena technics, the overall opinion from operators on the maintenance issues is that they were unavoidable, as with most new aircraft.

Airbus says it has worked closely with operators to fix all in-service aircraft and implement its new build that includes “a larger choice of aircraft design weights”. It also features a system upgrade that incorporates “software evolution and new functionalities, such as gust load alleviation, TCAS Alert Prevention (TCAP), and a soft go-around function,” says Ryjenkov.

Enhanced power

A Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engine failure onboard Qantas’ QF32 flight on November 4, 2010, brought the wing crack issue to light, resulting in Qantas’ fleet being grounded for almost a month following the emergency landing at Singapore Changi Airport. Further inspections went ahead and an airworthiness directive (AD) was issued on all 68 in-service A380s. A turbine disk release in the engine was blamed for the incident and the British engine manufacturer responded with the “appropriate remedial action to ensure that such an event cannot happen again,” says Peter Johnston, head of customer marketing, civil large engines at Rolls-Royce.

The A380 provides operators with a choice of two engines; the Trent 900 and Engine Alliance’s (EA) GP7200. Like Rolls-Royce, EA — a joint venture between General Electric (GE) and Pratt & Whitney (P&W), also experienced technical issues with its engine.

The GP7200 offers CO2 benefits from lower fuel burn and reduces NOx emissions, says Mary Ellen Jones, president of EA at the time of writing and now vice president, commercial engines customer support and Americas sales at P&W, following a scheduled leadership transition at EA.  She notes that the engine experienced a single engine in-flight shutdown, soon after take-off on Emirates’ A380 outbound flight from Sydney to Dubai on November 11, 2012, resulting in an emergency landing at Sydney Airport.

Since the incident an investigation has been conducted and “distress on the high-pressure turbine second stage nozzle” has been identified as a contributing cause, says Jones. However, this early configuration design was replaced in 2010 “with a more durable design with improved cooling” meaning that the problem, to some extent, had already been addressed. EA estimates that a dozen early configurations with nozzle defects are currently left in-service and the company has “an inspection programme under way to look at those engines when they are at 1,500 cycles and periodically thereafter,” adds Jones.

Both Rolls-Royce and EA have received recognition from Airbus’ performance handbook with enhancements to their engines. EA’s enhancement, which adds to its previously noted 1.3 per cent in improvements, is set for delivery in Q4 2013. Rolls-Royce will follow its enhanced performance upgrade in 2012 with a second EP upgrade set for delivery in 2014, which “will offer a further 0.8 per cent fuel efficiency for A380 operators” and “the combined EP improvement benefits are estimated to deliver a saving of over $20m per aircraft over the lifetime of the engine compared to the original Trent 900. These improvements, combined with performance retention benefits, continue to demonstrate that the Trent 900 engine offers the lowest lifetime fuel burn to the aircraft,” according to Johnston.

In service with 51 aircraft used by Lufthansa, Qantas, Singapore Airlines, China Southern, Thai Airways and Malaysia Airlines, Rolls-Royce’s Trent 900 has “achieved better than 99.8 per cent engine dispatch reliability in the last 12 months and recently accumulated two million in-service hours,” he adds. Now over two years since the fault, the engine is still in high demand and December 2012 saw Rolls-Royce sign a $1bn contact with Japan’s Skymark Airlines to power six of its A380s.

In comparison, the GP7200 is in service with 45 A380s used by Emirates, Air France, and Korean Air — with Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways to follow in 2014. Since entering into service in 2008 the engine has undergone several enhancements thanks to EA’s “continuous improvement approach”, says Jones. The next planned improvement to the engine provides “optimised clearances and different cooling flows” to “enhance performance by a couple of tenths of a per cent,” explains Jones.

“Right now we think that based on where we are competitively we are able to save our customers about $750,000 per aircraft per year just in fuel savings,” says Jones. EA believes that it contributes to the A380’s success through its reliability performance and sustained “dispatch reliability rates of 99.9 per cent”, adds Jones. Although no major future modifications have been announced, EA will be “looking at other technologies that can be employed” in the engine; the improvements process is an “ongoing exercise”, explains Jones.

According to Airbus, feedback from operators, MROs, and passengers has been extremely positive, which supports the opinion of Patricks Groseille, Air France Industries, A380 fleet engineering manager, that early maintenance issues were merely “teething problems”. During the resolution of these issues, component supplier Spairliners believes that everything was done to “keep the A380 reliable and safe” and according to CEO Olivier Mazzucchelli, it was “technically reliable from its very first hour”.

The next-generation aircraft

Priding itself on its lightweight and aerodynamic frame, the A380 only produces around 75 grams of CO2 per passenger kilometre and burns up to “20 per cent less fuel per seat” than its nearest competitor, according to Ryjenkov, further underlying Airbus’ desire to help the aviation industry’s commitment to minimise emissions.

In addition, Airbus notes that the A380 is the quietest long-haul aircraft currently in-service as its “flight performance and aerodynamics allow it to dramatically reduce the noise impact in the airport areas,” says Ryjenkov. Generating less than 50 per cent of the noise on take-off of its nearest competitor, Jones says that it “almost sneaks up on you, it’s that quiet”.

The A380 incorporates a number of advanced technologies. Its enhanced onboard central maintenance system, variable frequency generators, in-flight Wi-Fi, on-board satellite telephones and improved entertainment systems, are just some of the features which make the A380 an innovative, next-generation aircraft.

Some of these technologies were introduced with airlines and MROs in mind in an attempt to reduce scheduled maintenance requirements by identifying component failures as quickly as possible — for MROs the most significant being the Onboard Maintenance System (OMS). This system allows mechanics to quickly access "well-organised techlog-data" via AIRMAN (AIRcraft Maintenance ANalysis) — a ground segment software package - thus allowing them to speed up maintenance times. MROs have “praised the system because of the time savings it brings” and its ability to provide an overview of systems, according to Airbus.

The A380’s central maintenance capabilities and associated e-tools have been described by the industry as “a logical step forward in the improvement of maintenance efficiency, awareness of the aircraft and maintenance management”, according to Airbus. “The new A380 OMS is a great benefit for mechanics,” says Groseille, as regular maintenance actions such as trouble shooting manual (TSM) and aircraft maintenance manual (AMM) consulting can be done on the aircraft via the onboard maintenance terminals (OMT) — using hyperlinks. LHT’s Rieckborn believes the system “should be the minimum basis for all future aircraft”.

Variable frequency generators (VFG) replaced integrated generators (IDGs) to power the aircraft’s electrical components. According to Airbus, VFGs are less complex, more reliable and cost-effective when compared to IDGs, resulting in less scheduled maintenance time — only two scheduled maintenance requirements compared to five for IDGs.

The A380’s two hydraulic circuits operate at 5000psi — compared to the conventional 3000psi — thus also helping to reduce scheduled maintenance times, as the hydraulic accumulators are maintenance-free. EHA, EBHA and LEHGS represent the third hydraulic circuit and improve the dispatch reliability of the aircraft as they act as a back-up should the two hydraulic circuits fail.

Titanium applications have also been incorporated into the A380 as part of the aircraft’s landing gear design. As the titanium is not prone to corrosion the landing gear overhaul interval now stands at 12 years — Airbus’ longest yet.

Two more technical developments incorporated by the manufacturer are advanced lighting systems and recycled cabin air. In December 2012, Malaysia Airlines was the first to receive an A380 equipped with a new supplementary cooling system, helping to maintain optimum temperature throughout.

The A380 aftermarket

Airbus says the maintenance market was prepared for the aircraft’s entry into service (EIS) from its initial programme launch in 1996, as “various MROs had already built up the capability to maintain the aircraft,” according to Lemaire.  MROs quickly began to construct supersize hangars and adapt workflows to help accommodate their anticipated fleets. Emirates created a new standard with its seven dedicated hangars, setting a trend among customers to construct facilities that encapsulate the aircraft’s "wow" factor.

Aside from preparing to house the supersize A380, MROs have had to invest in new tooling and ground support equipment (GSE) as well as specialist training in order to work with its new materials, many of which are composites. SIA Engineering Company (SIAEC) invested "at least S$16.2m" in tooling and ground equipment when preparing for EIS. Due to the A380’s new hydraulic system, SIAEC also had to invest in 5,000psi hydraulic ground carts and additional safety equipment. Independent MRO Sabena technics invested in A380-specific GSE and tooling as well as renovating “existing hangars by building an addition to the front high enough for the A380’s fin”, comments Jean-Luc Fournel, COO customers.

SIAEC trained “over 300 licensed aircraft engineers and technicians from operational and support divisions” to handle the A380. Airbus provided on-the-job training prior to EIS which was conducted in Toulouse, whilst theory classes were held in Singapore. Its engineers were even “trained and attached to the flight line during the A380 test flights”. LHT specialists and engineers have also been trained to “work with advanced and composite materials” and LHT can now offer ‘Glare’ repairs to customers since the MRO performed them under the supervision of Airbus, according to Rieckborn.

The willingness of customers to incorporate the A380 through specialist training and facility expansion shows the market’s desire for a widebody of this size. “The A380 has received enthusiastic acceptance in the market,” believes Ryjenkov, which has been supported by increased passenger load factors that are “significantly above the average”. The A380 has 555 passenger seats as standard and the ability to seat 840 all-economy class passengers if preferred, allowing for even greater loads.

According to Airbus, most airlines have chosen to work directly with OEMs for component support. So far, Airbus has 'Flight Hour Services ('FHS') contracts with Singapore Airlines, China Southern Airlines, British Airways and Thai Airways.

Spairliners, the joint venture between Air France Industries and LHT, is a notable independent company providing integrated component support for the A380. It supports 35 in-service A380s with over 1,800 part numbers.

Last year Airbus acknowledged that part prices for the A380 were considered high, but maintained that these were justified by their reliability. Spairliners, whose component pool is valued at $120m, says “it is too early to say that high prices of parts are justified with high reliability”. However, Mazzucchelli adds that, “compared to other aircraft the reliability is higher and we notice an improvement on parts each year and the reliability is increasing.” In fact, “prices for A380 parts are increasing about three to five per cent” each year, which is standard for the market. Airbus comments that the A380 spares support can be “fully tailored for each customer on a case-by-case basis” with different levels of support and availability, which is reflected in part prices.

Although the A380 is a cutting-edge aircraft, the task of incorporating such a large widebody still remains. “The A380 fleet is limited and growing at a relatively slow pace compared to other platforms,” says Sébastien Weber, AFI KLM E&M vice president marketing, product support and development. “Investing in the correct ground support equipment and infrastructure is expensive,” explains Rieckborn.

But when an aircraft offers the “best comfort in the sky to passengers”, while reducing operating costs significantly, the market will find the means to accommodate such an innovation. And with “the operational reliability of the A380 world fleet currently well above 98 per cent”, according to Lemaire, those that have placed orders will no doubt be confident in their investment.

TAGS: Airframes
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