After a 4-year delay in delivery, cost overruns of about 25% of, a fatigue crack discovered in the idler gear in 2011, blade fatigue in the high-pressure compressor discovered the same year, a fatal crash caused by a software (FADEC) failure in May 2015, cracks are now back in the news.
On April Fool’s Day, the German MoD warned that Airbus Group was undergoing checks after the discovery of cracks in the gearbox of the turboprop engine, a part designed and manufactured by Avio, the Italian subsidiary of GE since several years.
“Re-discovered” would be the correct word, in fact, since the first cracks were (officially) first detected 5 years ago and Avio was supposed to be working on that since then, but… no news from Italy… Note that in October 2011, Europrop International, the consortium in charge of developing and producing the TP400-D6 turboprop engine, claimed the just-discovered issues had already been “resolved”.
Resolved, But Persistent
That was a bit hasty, it now seems. Same statement for the same twin-problem in April 2016, by Safran this time. The company also said that “only one pair of engines is affected by the problems, which were discovered during production” and that it could be fixed “between several weeks and several months” from now… So does that mean it “only” concerns the pair of engines pointed out in 2011? Curious... So, should we understand that the 2011 announcement was wrong, or inaccurate? And what confidence can we have in this new statement five years later?
Obviously -- and it is a line they have maintained all along -- Airbus and its partners reaffirm, each time, that these problems will not affect deliveries in any way. For 2016, they have reaffirmed their ability to deliver 20 aircraft as promised. But what will be the level of quality and the critical maintenance needs of these aircraft? The military and the taxpayer might be eager to find out more about this.
New cracks discovered
If only the problems were limited to the above, it would not be such a big deal. But unfortunately, it is not the case, as more and different cracks have been found.
On May 13, Airbus has indicated it wanted to swap out airframe components in Germany's Luftwaffe A400M transport aircraft following discovery of cracks in a French A400M airframe during a “normal quality control processes”. The cracking behaviour concerns the aluminium alloys material used for the aircraft’s airframe, including the wing attachment frame.
Although flight safety will not be impacted, according to the company, A400M operators for their part fear that the aircraft’s reliability will be compromised in the long-run, with potentially high maintenance costs. Necessary inspections and repairs, including the replacement of concerned components, could take up to 7 months, according to Benedikt Zimmer, head of the German Defence Ministry’s arms acquisition department. Airbus has been asked to submit a comprehensive plan to deal with the various issues affecting the plane.
The cracking issue was first identified in 2011 during tests before the aircraft became operational, according to Airbus, although it has been reported that the company was aware of the insufficient quality of aluminium alloys as early as 2008. At the time, Airbus had decided to reinforce the alloy with composite material to save time and money.
Persistent quality issues
This raises many questions about the company’s quality controls and, above all, about Airbus’s capability to follow announced delivery schedules. Moreover, the replacement of crack-affected parts lacks comprehensive and long-term solutions, as the producing company Premium AEROTEC (located in Varel, Germany) does not seem to have found a viable alternative.
The A400M Atlas program has been plagued by persistent quality issues, both in the final assembly facility in Spain and in Germany.
Back in 2009, MTU Aero Engines was blamed for delays in the FADEC (Full Authority Digital Engine Control) software design, a system consisting of a digital computer controlling all aspects of the aircraft’s TP400 engines’ performance. The same software was identified as being the main cause of the A400M crash that occurred on May 9, 2015, near Seville, causing four deaths.
A400M operators and government officials have expressed concern over Airbus’s lack of transparency. The direct operational costs and long-term reliability of the aircraft remain an essential but unanswered question, and are a constant headache for the defense ministries involved. Military use of the aircraft has been further hampered after European authorities insisted that inspections be made on the gearbox after every 20 hours of use. The manufacturer has also been blamed for lack of spare part deliveries, causing maintenance operations to be much longer than they should.
Paris confident, Berlin skeptical
Paris remains confident in Airbus’s ability to deal with the A400M’s various problems, and expects deliveries to restart in 2017. Twenty aircraft were to be delivered by Airbus to its clients this year, an objective now clearly compromised. (and three of the aircraft delivered early this year were originally due in 2015—Ed.)
However, beyond the technical and structural issues affecting the plane, it remains unable to perform essential missions for which it was originally conceived, such as parachuting of troops from the side doors, in-flight-refuelling of helicopters, and self-defense in war zones.
Berlin, however, is far more sceptical, and was angered by the recent delay announcement made by Airbus: Wolfgang Hellmich, head of the Bundestag Defense committee, is openly talking about a possible cancellation A400M orders, and demands a new risk assessment of the program.
The current C-160 Transall transport aircraft are expected to be retired in 2021, meaning that further delays in A400M deliveries could seriously harm German military capabilities. Where the German military were to have 17 aircraft in service by the end of 2016, the actual figure is three operational units, with none expected to be delivered this year. France is in a similar situation with only 8 planes delivered, and has already been obliged to order 4 extra C-130Js.
Among possible transitional – but costly – options for A400M customers: the lease of Boeing C-17s (assuming any are available, given that the assembly line has now been closed—Ed.)
No End in Sight
The A400M program has so far been a never-ending nightmare for Airbus accountants, costing €5 billion to date; following the company’s statement that the financial impact of the latest A400M delays could be significant, Airbus’ stock price has dropped since April 28th, when it issued the following statement: “Overall, the cost-at-completion assessment will need to be adapted accordingly, but at this stage there is not a sufficiently mature view of the technical, commercial and industrial consequences and their potential impact on the financial statements, which could be significant.”
The risk appears endless for Airbus, pressured by governments and investors on the one hand, and faced with numerous manufacturer and subcontractor-caused faults on the other.
Maybe could it be interesting to review the records of the A400M program management since the program’s inception, as it was launched at the same time than the A350.