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Airbus Superjumbo Jet Gets its Wings Clipped

In an industry where safety is an absolute necessity, any defect can be devastating to an aircraft maker. The European company Airbus is learning that the hard way: small cracks on wing brackets of the A380 have angered operators, who have demanded compensation for the time their fleets have been grounded for repairs.

As the FT reports, the cracked brackets are minor defects that both Emirates and Airbus say do not make planes unsafe to fly, although regulators disagree. But still, the defect has been found on ten A380s operated by Emirates, who has 69 more of the plane on order. All of Singapore Airlines’ ten A380s have similar cracks as well.

Aircraft production relies on meticulous craftsmanship, and using shoddy brackets does not bode well with Airbus’ image, who has promised to service all 68 of its A380s currently in operation. Operators have lost revenue from the required maintenance groundings, but also stand to lose customers unsure of Airbus’ safety and quality standards.

As Airbus stumbles and sales fall, Boeing stands to gain—and might find some fun in gloating. Not that Boeing is trouble-free. Delays in delivery of the Boeing Dreamliner have annoyed Air India, which wants up to $1 billion in compensation for the delays. The contest between the EU and American aerospace companies looks set to continue, with China and Brazil hoping one day to take more market share for themselves.

Meanwhile, Boeing execs in Chicago celebrate Airbus’ latest woes, which could put Airbus further behind Boeing in orders and deliveries, and Boeing engineers hurriedly double check their work to make sure they aren’t susceptible to a similar slipup.

Cosmopolitan citizens of the world though we are, we hope readers understand if Via Meadia quietly roots for the home team. Seattle, unlike Detroit, can still hold its own with the best the global competition has to offer. Go Boeing: design great planes, build great planes, sell great planes — and make great jobs.

Watch the wings, though, guys; those things need to stay on.

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  • Kris

    Ring them bells!

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    As the recent labor gang problems Boeing has suffered when it tried to open a new factory in South Carolina(a right to work state) show. Boeing could stand to lose some of the Blue Model baggage it shares with the American Auto makers. Also, Boeing’s near monopoly position, isn’t good for it, or the development of air transportation. Boeing is looking very much like AT&T before it was broken up, and look how far we have come since then. Boeing’s only saving grace at the moment, is that Airbus has even more Blue Model baggage that it does, with labor gangs, subsidies, and EU redtape.

  • Blacque Jacques Shellacque

    The 747-8i is perfectly capable of doing the job…

  • Larry Brasfield

    It would be interesting to see why Airbus does not see this as a flight safety issue. It defies belief that a structural component with stresses sufficient to induce cracking has not become weaker as the cracks propagate. What is to stop them from propagating deeper into the material? What happens when the component finally parts? If that is harmless, why would the airframe designer put in such a useless mass? The story begs for some skepticism from the reporters rather than just scribbling down what PR agents are spouting.

  • Pete

    “If it ain’t Boeing, I ain’t goin'”

  • Country Dick

    If it ain’t Boeing, I’m not going

  • Abelard Lindsey

    Airbus has a history of crashes every time it has introduced a completely new aircraft. The A319/320 and A340 all had several crashes the first few years they were out in the marketplace. I would not want to fly on the A380 until it has been in service for at least 5-6 years.

  • Jim.

    “Cosmopolitan citizens of the world though we are, we hope readers understand if Via Meadia quietly roots for the home team.”

    Loyalty is a tricky virtue. Social cohesion fails without it, but it can very easily lead to compromising on other important virtues.

    The solution in many cases is to have avenues of social (or even legal) pressure to push those to whom you owe loyalty towards the best practice of all the other virtues that might be compromised by that sort of favoritism.

    This is the fundamental failure of the Multicult; they expect people to simultaneously have loyalty, tolerance, and the virtues that allow a society to excel.

    Coincidentally having all three is a matter of luck, and will collapse as time goes on, and social pressure towards virtue is ignored. The demands of loyalty can survive if that loyalty also demands virtue; if tolerance (loyalty in the absence of demanding, or even encouraging, virtue) is demanded instead, it all falls apart.

  • BruceC

    “Jacksonian Libertarian says:
    March 17, 2012 at 6:54 pm”

    Boeing does *not* have a monopoly, unless you consider only the US market. That is a poor way to evaluate a global corporation with globally sold products. As a natter of fact, Airbus has had a larger market share than Boeing for the last several years. Anyone thinking that Boeing is sitting back and not innovating is completely wrong.

    That’s what the whole issue with the 787 was about: trying to do too much too quickly while innovating.

    There are several smaller aircraft makers waiting in the wings to take over market share if either Boeing or Airbus falters, namely Bombardier, Embraer, and Comac (China).

  • CJ

    There are just way too many scary stories about Airbus. The scariest recent one is this one but there are lots more. And no, I don’t work for Boeing nor own any shares.

  • Thoan

    Mr. Mead opines that the brackets were defectively made, but that is an assumption. The problem may be one of design, not production. And such a design problem is much more concerning, because manufacturing problems are correctable, but one never knows when a hidden design flaw will bite you on the empenage.

    Boeing will never gloat about this. In aviation, there’s a “there but for the grace of God” attitude. BA has had and will have its share of embarrassments, too.

    Airbus sales are falling because it shot its wad last year (320 Neo), and BA sales are rising due to its decision to reengine the 737. The real test will be the rewinged 777 vs. the Airbus 350. Should be interesting. What gets overlooked too often is the mix of sales. BA strongly outsells Airbus in the widebody market, which is the most profitable segment, and Airbus outsells BA in narrowbody aircraft, which is fast approaching commodity profit status. BA should do well, now that its inherited McDonnell-Douglas management has fallen on its sword.

  • Soviet of Washington

    Thoan says: “BA should do well, now that its inherited McDonnell-Douglas management has fallen on its sword.”

    I second that, the MD guys didn’t really understand commercial.

    BA just flip-flopped the top managers on the 777 and 787 programs. Moved the experienced production guy to the 787 where they need to emphasize the ramp, and the more experienced design guy on the 777 for the new wing project. Don’t appear to have missed a beat on either line. 787 final assembly has ramped faster than expected, looks like subcontractor capacity will the be limiting factor.

  • sherlock

    “BA should do well, now that its inherited McDonnell-Douglas management has fallen on its sword.”

    And you can thank former Boeing CEO Phil Condit for that swallowing that “inheritance”, which included Harry “Ethics” Stonecipher and his crew of cowboys, who first ran MD into the ground and then took their best shot at doing the same to BA. The fact that the BA board put Condit in charge over Mullally is one of the greatest screwups in American business history. In retrospect, it appears Condit and Stonecipher were more interested in [distressing allegations of a personal nature deleted] than anything else.


    If I recall correctly, the delay in the delivery of the Boeing Dreamliner is due to cracking in the wing root structure of the plane. Again, if memory serves, the part was subcontracted to one of the international suppliers Boeing engaged to make overseas sales more palatable to foreign governments and their flag carriers. Commercial aircraft development is such a capital-intensive business that even major corporations are unable to continuously compete. Boeing absorbed McDonnell-Douglas, and phased out Douglas’ designs. Lockheed tried with the well-engineered L1011 but failed. Plus, aviation history is littered with the bones of planes that had fatal development problems before the bugs were fixed. Think of the Boeing Stratocruiser, the Lockheed Electra and the DeHavilland Comet, and the list is much longer than that. Building planes isn’t for the faint-hearted.

  • BruceC

    “sherlock says:
    March 18, 2012 at 7:59 pm ”

    Maybe I’m reading too much into your statement, but to me you implied that Phil Condit was a McDonnell Douglas retread. Hardly. He was a Boeing employee since 1965.

    I think that there’s plenty of mismanagement blame to go around without smearing MD. But I do agree that Mulally would have made a great CEO. Oh, well. Boeing’s loss is Ford’s gain.

    In my opinion, another blunder of Boeing management was the phaseout of the 717 (MD-95). Now we have no product to compete in the low end RJ market. Since we abandoned that area Bombardier and Embraer have taken it over.

  • M53

    There were no structural defects in the 787, the production delays were caused primarily by the fact that the production infrastructure for the 787 is too spread out. We had a bunch of Wharton and Harvard business grads come in and proclaim that by “globally sourcing” like half of the aircraft we could save a whole lot of money. Turns out that it was just as expensive and it caused a whole mess of headaches as far as making sure that everyone was on the same page as far as design changes. When Boeing handles a project in-house there’s a single computing network over which they share a single up-to-date set of information (design drawings, etc.) so that everyone is appraised of new developments, which come thick and fast with a project this complicated. When you’re dealing with all of these companies in Japan, Australia and Italy, it becomes difficult to monitor where people stand. That’s what came back to bite Boeing on the 787. There were differences in wiring design that somehow didn’t make it across the Pacific to Japan until it was too late. The result is you get the kind of problems that wouldn’t happen on one of Boeing’s other programs. There have been multiple public and semi-public statements coming out of the 777 program (which will officially launch the 777-8 program by the end of the year if all goes as planned) that there will not be the same kind of globally distributed supply chain in place, but a much more modest one like on the original 7777s.
    For all the talk about this being a new globally integrated age, Boeing has learned that there are few benefits inherent in that system for an undertaking as complicated as designing or redesigning an aircraft. There are benefits to being there in person that will never be eliminated.

    As for the A380, my understanding is that the problems really aren’t that bad. Modern fracture analysis methods enable engineers to predict with some certainty when a damaged component will fail. It really may not be an immediate safety concern that the 380s are developing fatigue. That said, it is a major design goof by somebody and it means that these aircraft will have to be withdrawn from service for a significant period of time, which loses the airlines money. Additionally these aircraft will now have additional structural material added in retrofit which will adversely impact their performance. This is a potentially costly mistake but one which will most likely not “kill” the aircraft. In my opinion, the biggest danger to the A380 is the business planning that went into it; even a swell ultra-heavy four-engine aircraft has the potential to fail if it proves not to be economical. Airbus recently discontinued their long-haul widebody A340 because it was based on an inefficient four-engine design and they were getting murdered by the 777. Back in the 90s Airbus tried to keep the FAA from revising the ETOPS regulations to allow the 777 to fly more routes. That particular bit of “deregulation” has actually been good for the airlines as well as the manufacturers.

  • maximumrandb

    Airplanes can fly a long time with stress cracks, but they have to be monitored (x-rayed) regularly, and eventually the fatigued parts will have to be replaced. So it should not be a safety-of-flight problem for the A-380 for the foreseeable future.

    Both the C-5 and C-130 wing boxes were replaced after 25 or so years after their manufacture; it’s a regular occurrence. The T-38 supersonic trainers had stress cracks at the wing roots as far back as the early 80’s, but are still flying today.

  • Jim.

    Am I the only one blown away by the number of industry insiders that come out of the woodwork to comment on this site?

    Bravo WRM for putting together a group like this!

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