Airbus to inspect all A380 superjumbos for wing cracks

Aviation analyst Chris Yates said possible cracks on Airbus A380 planes are a minor safety issue

Aircraft maker Airbus has been ordered to check all A380 superjumbo planes currently in service after cracks were found in wing components.

The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has ordered all 68 Airbus A380 superjumbo planes currently in operation to be checked.

It extends an earlier check of 20 A380 jets, whose wings are made in North Wales, ordered by the EASA last month.

Airbus reiterated the "safe operation of the [A380] planes is not affected".

The superjumbo's maker said it had already started implementing a temporary fix to the problem and a permanent fix would be rolled out shortly.

EASA said checks on the 20 planes had identified a new form of cracking.

"This condition, if not detected and corrected, may lead to reduction of the structural integrity of the aeroplane," the directive said.

The move came as Qantas Airways, Australia's largest carrier, suspended the use of one of its Airbus A380 passenger jets after discovering 36 small cracks in key wing components.

A380 wing structure

Qantas workers found the cracks, measuring less than 2cm long, in the wing rib feet - the metal brackets that connect the wing's ribs to its skin.

Each A380 wing has around 2,000 of the feet within it, although Airbus insists only a "handful" of feet have been affected.

Singapore Airlines, which took delivery of the first A380, has repaired some of its superjumbos after finding cracks and has since put them back into operation.

'Manufacturing issues'

Start Quote

An aircraft would not be allowed to fly unless it was deemed to be fully airworthy ”

End Quote Philippa Oldham Institution of Mechanical Engineers

Qantas' discovery was made after the aircraft hit severe turbulence on a flight from London to Singapore last month.

The Australian carrier said the cracks were not related to the turbulence, but to "manufacturing issues".

Paul Hayes, director of safety at aviation consultancy Ascend said: "It must be extremely irritating to Qantas, but they appear to have taken appropriate precautionary action.

"Although it must be said, these cracks seem like minor irritants. One would expect some teething troubles with any new aircraft," he told the BBC.

Others agreed that the safety directive had to be put in context.

"It is important to note that these cracks are very small and will be monitored by the airlines. They are unlikely to affect aircraft operation," said Philippa Oldham, head of transport at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

"Airlines approved by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) have very strict regulations and require there to be rigorous inspection procedures, so an aircraft would not be allowed to fly unless it was deemed to be fully airworthy by the authority or their delegates."

'Take a grip'

Analysis

Ever since the A380 was first unveiled at a ceremony in Toulouse seven years ago, the giant Airbus plane has been embroiled in scandal.

Initial deliveries were severely delayed by problems with installing the electrical equipment, customers were slow to come forward to buy the plane, and the project's economic viability was questioned.

Arch rival Boeing complained about how the A380's development had been partly funded through launch aid, which it described as illegal subsidies.

And there have been problems with the Rolls-Royce engines fitted to the plane, resulting in two emergency landings - one of which involved an engine fire.

The latest development, an investigation of all A380 aircrafts after cracks in key wing components were discovered, will do little to mollify concerned passengers and airline customers.

EASA confirmed that A380s which have flown more than 1,384 flights will need inspections within three weeks of of 13 February.

Those with between 1,216 and 1,384 will need to be seen within six weeks of that date.

Planes with fewer than 1,216 recorded flights will be inspected at the next routine maintenance interval, it added.

Although A380s are not flown by UK airlines, news of the checks was welcomed by the British Airline Pilots Association (Balpa).

Balpa general secretary Jim McAuslan said: "From the outset we have said that the European Aviation Safety Agency, as the responsible regulator, must take a grip of this issue, and we all must trust them to deliver.

"It is of concern that today's announcement comes some weeks after the news of these cracks began to emerge."

The wings, landing gear and fuel systems of the A380 are made at plants in Broughton, near Chester, and Filton in Bristol.

The A380 was first unveiled in January 2005, but production delays meant deliveries did not start until October 2007.

In addition to Singapore Airlines, Emirates and Air France are among the firm's biggest customers for the jet.

There are currently 253 A380 jets on order to carriers worldwide.

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