The whole of last year was dominated for many major airlines by one single issue, the loss from service of their Rolls Royce Trent-1000 powered 787’s because of an engine issue that few have seemingly managed to truly understand outside of the business.
The issue was caused according to Rolls Royce, by a defect in a rolling engine development programme simply described as “Package B”.
Over the holiday period I as able to speak, on assurance of anonymity, with a senior development engineer who explained that the cause was remarkably simple, but the consequences were totally beyond expectations and speak to wider issues with engine manufacturers and airline demands.
The idea behind the development was to lighten the engine, reduce its cost and yet still retain its efficiencies.
The solution to the problem was to remove just one blade from the fan and rebalance the engine.
The demands on manufacturers to get new developments into service and keep airlines happy with their incessant demands for greater efficiency, is so overwhelming, testing is conducted only to the level that is in essence, the minimum to prove reliability.
This is an industry-wide problem but manifests itself in dozens of different ways. The commercial pressures, the financial bottom line, always take precedent – and even though all of the parties involved insist safety is their number one concern, it’s hard to really believe that given the potential consequences, especially if you’re as cynical over the way any corporate entity operates.
The variant was cleared for production – don’t underestimate the cost of a single fan blade either. They are cast in a single piece in an expensive, time consuming and complex process that suffers no margin for error, from exotic alloys. A typical engine pair would cost as much as one-third of the full manufacturing cost of the aircraft, which is why most engines are leased and so valuable.
In service, while it took some time to manifest, the loss of a single fab blade from the original design began to cause complications that hadn’t been seen in testing. Undetectable to human senses, frequencies developed in the engine, setting up resonant vibration harmonics through the assembly, unsettling the rest of the engine, eventually leading to shutdowns in flight.
The cost to Rolls Royce may not be easy to discern, but it will run into figures of billions of pounds and won’t be fully resolved until 2022. Take just two airlines, Air New Zealand and Virgin Atlantic.
ANZ was forced to suspend most of its operations with the 787-9, bring in wet lease operators like HiFly, pay compensation for delayed flights etc. And this has gone on for months, not just a few weeks. It’s expected to last nearly two years overall.
Virgin Atlantic had no choice but to look at the long-term operations – buying back an old A340-600 that had gone out of service, and leasing in 4 A330-200’s for between two and four years, to cover lengthy periods of down time on its brand new 787-9’s.
Other major airlines were also affected but tried to find other ways around the problem, although even BA was forced to take on external aircraft at peak times.
Norwegian has apparently negotiated a substantial settlement with Rolls Royce – and I’ve seen with my own eyes one of its engineless aircraft parked up at BHX for weeks.
The issues however are industry wide. Its’s not just engine manufacturers who get put under pressure, to deliver more, deliver it faster. Yet under no circumstances do airlines want compromised quality or safety – no airline wants a fatal crash, the reputation, PR and financial damage would be incalculable, if short-term.
Just recall the recent issue with the Lion Air 737 Max 8 crash. A series of decisions were taken at Boeing not to highlight the new anti-stall system, so it didn’t get any coverage in training. This wasn’t done out of malice or with any intent to cause a problem. It was done to keep training time down to two days because airlines don’t like pilots spending longer on conversion courses. Instead it was described only in the rather substantial technical manual pilots eventually are expected to read and understand.
Like or not, the bottom line on the accountants page was the responsible party for that incident, as it would have been at Rolls Royce. It is not anyones intent to cause these issues, it’s the budgets and financial bottom lines of cost restrained airlines in vicious competition for our money, that bares the brunt of the real blame.