Thursday, February 17, 2011

Why A Certain Qantas A380 Must Fly Again

The Airbus A380 that sported tail number VH-OQA will return to the sky. Someday. That's the word from Qantas CEO Alan Joyce as reported in Air Transport Intelligence News today by Will Horton. "We'll be in the air by the end of the year with that aircraft," Horton quotes the Qantas boss saying.

Well, the flight crew gossip networks have been abuzz with speculation as to whether an airplane as damaged at this one could in fact be repaired at less than the cost of buying new. And while the answer so far appears to be yes, ($99 million US for repair, upwards of $250 million to replace) there's another factor to consider; the desire by Airbus to avoid having two dreaded four-letter words attached to its newest, biggest, most sensational airplane ever. Those four letter words would be HULL. LOSS.

By virtue of its record-breaking passenger capacity and lengthy development time, the fact that it has far more orders to deliver than it has so far shipped, losing an A380 in its 4th year in commercial operation, even in a casualty-free crash, is just too devastating to contemplate. That's why patching this big baby up and sending it back into revenue service is worth whatever it costs - to the manufacturer of the plane and the maker of its engines and to the airlines around the world that have purchased both.

I can only presume that this is what is motivating Qantas which has ordered twenty A380s to begin talking publicly about that fateful day in November when the Rolls Royce Trent 900 engine exploded, spewing shrapnel into the wing and fuselage and leaving the five men on the flight deck with a mess o' error messages to sort through.

Last weekend, Australia's 60 Minutes program featured a 14 minute spot on the event, putting forth the handsome face of the happy ending captain, Richard de Crespigny. The story - titled Captain Fantastic, don't ya love it? - was on You Tube earlier this week, but is no longer there, so let me quickly recap:

Capt. de Crespigny and company had their hands full as system after system went in-op. "A Rolls-Royce engine has never failed so spectacularly," Capt. de Crespigny told the interviewer. The captain, aided by the four other experienced airmen on this flight, concludes in a glass-is-half-full spirit that having safely brought the airplane back down in Singapore, "it performed brilliantly. It is indestructible."

This is, unfortunately, an example of judging the success of a process by the result, when clearly any one thing could have caused a very different outcome. Did the crew perform brilliantly? Undoubtedly. The engines did not. The airplane? That remains to be seen.

All's well that end's well worked well for Shakespeare but experienced investigators know better than to allow that kind of thinking to distract them from a thorough examination of the way things deteriorated on the aircraft that day.

There are important lessons to be learned from Qantas Flight 32. All of which are entirely unrelated to whether and when VH-OQA goes back in the sky.

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