Rolls-Royce wings could be clipped over A380 trouble (News Feature)
By Anna Tomforde Nov 8, 2010, 15:38 GMT
London - Over the past 15 years, Rolls-Royce engine-makers have been in steep ascendancy as global demand for more, bigger and cleaner aircraft seemed unstoppable and Europe became a serious player in a formerly US-dominated market.
Ever since the firm's foundation as a maker of high-class motor cars in 1906, followed by its expansion into the production of aero-engines at the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the Rolls-Royce brand has been synonymous with quality.
But, following the dramatic mid-air loss of power by a Qantas superjumbo shortly after take-off from Singapore last Thursday, and a separate incident involving Rolls-Royce engines on a second Qantas aircraft, more than 1.5 billion pounds (2.4 billion dollars) have been wiped off the company's market value.
In Britain, some commentators have been quick to draw parallels with the dramatic loss of image suffered by BP, another of Britain's few remaining world brands, over the Gulf of Mexico oil spill earlier this year.
'Both companies are some of the best-known global British brands, and both challenge American competitors,' Joe Lampel, a professor at Cass Business School in London, told the Guardian newspaper. In the US, at least, parallels were likely to be drawn between them.
At present, 20 of the 37 Airbus A380's in service use the Rolls- Royce Trent 900 engine at the heart of the Qantas episode, while the remaining 17 superjumbos use engines manufactured by Engine Alliance, a consortium formed by US rivals General Electric and Pratt and Whitney.
'Rolls-Royce are the crown jewels of British engineering,' Tim Robinson, editor of the monthly Aerospace International magazine, told German Press Agency dpa Monday.
But the company had been under extra scrutiny since the Qantas incident. It was now under pressure to demonstrate that its engines were 'reliable' and that it could get to grips with the problems that had occurred.
The Independent newspaper, however, believes that Rolls-Royce 'stands to lose more than Qantas' if the investigations found fault with the engine.
With large orders pending, and many still unconfirmed, for the world's largest passenger plane, the outcome of the preliminary investigations could be 'commercially damaging,' said the paper.
Rolls-Royce, at its posh London headquarters, has remained tight-lipped about the incidents. It was 'far too early' to draw final conclusions from the failure of one of four Trent 900 engines of the Qantas plane.
While some aviation experts have urged calm, stressing that the superjumbo was designed to fly on just two of its four engines, others point out that the image of an ultramodern jet making an emergency landing with smoke trailing from a broken engine is cause for alarm.
They underline that the stricken Trent 900 engine suffered an explosion sufficient to detach the rear part of the engine and send debris flying to the ground, suggesting turbine problems.
Critics also point to a recent report by the Cologne-based European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) in August requiring an inspection of 'certain conditions' within the Trent 900 engine.
'Some of these conditions present a potential unsafe condition to the aeroplane,' said the EASA report.
The work of the plane-maker, Airbus and its parent company, EADS, was 'not in question here,' one British analyst said. It was Rolls-Royce which had to find the answers.
For the engine-maker, the string of mishaps that has afflicted the Trent 900, and other engines, over the past year, comes at an inconvenient time.
Airbus is currently in negotiations to sell dozens of the superjumbo jets to China, hoping that current order levels of around 230 planes will eventually grow into a worldwide fleet of 800 superjumbos.
But for that to happen, Rolls-Royce must hope and pray that the investigation into the latest failures, and previous incidents involving the Airbus 380, will be resolved in its favour.
Rolls-Royce started the development of the Trent 900 engine in 1996, the year chief executive John Rose took over to lead the aero-engine maker into a period of profitable results.
Rolls-Royce, which supplies engines for about 40 per cent of all passenger aircraft in the world, made a pre-tax profit of 2.2 billion pounds in 2009 - four times as much as in 1996.
'It is a company whose strategy is based on evolution rather than revolution,' said Robinson, pointing out that the Rolls-Royce concept of building on engineering successes of the past, meant the company was 'particularly careful about how they innovate.'
On its website, Rolls-Royce said the Trent 900 design 'benefits from over 30 million hours of Trent family experience.' Lighter, quieter and more fuel efficient than any of its predecessors, it was the 'engine of choice for the A380.'
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