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Transportation of Passengers

Major air disaster averted

An Airbus A380 managed to make a successful emergency landing after one of its engines exploded. But the explosion caused one of the costliest hull losses in the history of passenger aviation.

04.12.2012

One of the engines of the Airbus A380-842 “Nancy-Bird Walton” operated by the Australian airline Qantas was seriously damaged during a flight on 4 November 2010. The turbine wheel of the intermediate pressure turbine shattered in the engine on the left wing. In the ensuing explosion, these parts were blasted out of the engine at high speed. They pierced the left wing of the Airbus at several points, damaging fuel tanks, hydraulic lines, power supply lines and control lines. The pilots returned to Singapore for an emergency landing. None of the 440 passengers, five pilots and 24 flight attendants were injured. Fuel was jettisoned prior to the emergency landing at Changi Airport. However, due to damage to the wing which housed the kerosene tanks and the aircraft’s low altitude, the pilots were unable to jettison as much fuel as would ordinarily have been necessary. After almost two hours in the air, the Airbus A380 consequently touched down weighing 50 tonnes more than is normally recommended. The difference in weight between the port and starboard wings amounted to 10 tonnes.

Oil leak believed to be the cause of the fire

According to the ATSB report dated 3 December 2011, fatigue cracking occurred in a stub pipe to the turbine bearing between the engine’s high and intermediate pressure turbines as a result of a misaligned counterbore. The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) claimed that, according to initial findings, the fault had been caused by oil leaking from a defective bearing. The leaking oil ignited and caused the engine to overheat. As a result, a wheel broke in the intermediate pressure turbine, its fragments piercing the turbine casing and the wing. Known as oil fire, this phenomenon had already been described by EASA in a directive published in August 2010 as a possible consequence of the greater wear found in certain parts of the Trent 900 engine series. The directive also warned that parts might be expelled from the engine. In addition, the directive provided for stricter controls to be enforced for all engines of this series.
An Airbus A380 managed to make a successful emergency landing after one of its engines exploded. But the explosion caused one of the costliest hull losses in the history of passenger aviation. © Qantas Airbus A380 VH-OQA, ATSB
Leaking oil is believed to have caused the fire and the turbine explosion.
Not only the repair work itself but implementation problems also sent the costs of this hull loss soaring. All the repairs had to be carried out in Singapore, resulting in high hangar rental fees, the need to fly in experts and difficulties reserving the hangar, which Singapore Airlines also required for its maintenance work on the A380.

New loss dimension

Fortunately, the crew and passengers were left unscathed by the flight and the emergency landing in Singapore following the engine’s dramatic explosion. After a few days, however, aviation insurers discovered that the loss sustained by the A380 had reached a whole new level in financial terms. In addition to the physical damage to the port wing of the Airbus with damaged fuel tanks, hydraulic lines, power supply lines and control lines, the hydraulic systems were also only partially intact and the buoyancy aids were likewise out of order. But the damage to individual components was just part of the story: the entire aircraft structure was affected as a result of the excess weight and uneven weight distribution during the emergency landing. This is due to the new lightweight composite technology used in construction of the A380. Qantas CEO Alan Joyce told the trade magazine Air Transport World that work on the wide-body jet would cost A$ 157m (€113m). Qantas and Rolls-Royce reached an out-of-court agreement in June 2011. According to Joyce, Qantas accepted the engine manufacturer’s offer of A$ 95m (€70m). Rolls-Royce anticipates losses of some £56m for 2010. All in all, this is the costliest hull repair loss in the history of passenger aviation. Despite the close collaboration between Airbus manufacturer EADS and Qantas, the repair work on the severely damaged A380 was a protracted process. The aircraft was not handed over to Sydney until 21 April 2012. On 28 April, the A380 was put back into service with a flight to Hong Kong.

You can find a detailed version of this article in the current issue of our Topics Schadenspiegel.

Munich Re Experts
Astrid Lehmann
is a claims handler in the Aviation Department. She is also a consultant on facultative risks in cargo airline business.
Thomas Endriß
Munich Re’s Aviation Department. He is a facultative underwriter for airlines in the USA, Canada and Africa, and for manufacturers of light aircraft. He is also responsible for the insurance of leasing companies.
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