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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 26 April 2018

Boeing hits turbulence as Rolls-Royce engine woes accelerate

UK company says that 380 engines needed additional inspections to address durability issues that are worse than originally thought

One of two Rolls Royce Trent 1000 engines on a Boeing 787 Dreamliner. The the plane maker and the engine manufacturer are facing trouble.Edgar Su/Reuters
One of two Rolls Royce Trent 1000 engines on a Boeing 787 Dreamliner. The the plane maker and the engine manufacturer are facing trouble.Edgar Su/Reuters

About a quarter of Boeing 787 Dreamliners in service face restrictions on long-range flights as regulators respond to mushrooming problems with a Rolls-Royce engine.

The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is expected this week to curb the travel time that Dreamliners powered by a Trent 1000 variant are allowed to be away from the nearest airport, said a person briefed on the matter. The European Aviation Safety Agency (Easa) on Friday required the equivalent of monthly inspections for the turbine, which debuted four years ago with Boeing’s 787-9.

The regulators are responding to revelations on Friday from Rolls-Royce that 380 engines needed additional inspections to address durability issues that are worse than originally thought. Questions about the Trent’s intermediate pressure compressor blades surfaced with All Nippon Airways in 2016 and intensified in December when Air New Zealand Dreamliners suffered turbine damage during flights on successive days.

“No US airline operates Boeing 787s that are equipped with the affected engines,” the FAA said, according to Bloomberg. “The FAA is working closely with Easa and will take appropriate action.”

Boeing said Friday that it’s dispatching teams to help airlines “mitigate service disruption”. Otherwise, it’s business as usual for the Chicago-based plane maker since the 787s rolling out of its factories now are powered either by a General Electric turbine or the updated Trent 1000 TEN, a new variant redesigned for greater durability.

Nevertheless, the stepped up scrutiny of the affected engines, the Trent 1000 Package C, is certain to cause headaches for some Dreamliner operators. Rolls-Royce’s struggles to resolve the durability issues also raises questions about the reliability of the Trent engine models used for Airbus wide-body jets, said aerospace analyst Richard Aboulafia.

“They’ve got issues here both financially and reputationally,” Aboulafia said of the enginemaker.

Rolls-Royce shares fell 1.6 percent 866.80 pence at the close in London on Friday. The company’s €750 million (Dh3.39 billion) of bonds maturing in 2021 fell to around €1.06, the lowest since March 2016, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Boeing declined 2.4 per cent to $329.28 in New York.

US regulators are expected to reduce the so-called ETOPS range of afflicted planes to about 140 minutes from the nearest airport, down from 330 minutes, according to the person, who asked not to be named because they weren’t authorised to speak publicly. The new restrictions, typically needed for long flights over oceans, are meant to keep the twin-engine aircraft within safe flying distance of a landing spot should one turbine fail.

Hardest hit will be airlines flying Boeing’s carbon-fibre airliners on trans-Pacific routes, said aviation consultant Robert Mann. Flights that typically take polar routes will need to hug the coast of Alaska, adding time and cost, he said. Trans-Atlantic service shouldn’t be affected.

Even more disruptive is the European regulator’s airworthiness directive requiring that the inspection interval for 787s equipped with the engines be cut to every 80 trips from 200 now. Mechanics will perform a visual inspection with a fibre-optic tool called a boroscope, searching for signs of cracking or unusual wear on the blades, seals, combustion chamber and other components.

“It’s an invasive inspection,” Mr Mann said. “It has to be done by someone who’s skilled. It’s time intensive. You have to look at hundreds of blades, potentially.”

Such frequent reviews shouldn’t be necessary for engines so relatively new, he said. There’s an additional risk that the inspections will turn up unrelated issues that delay a plane from returning to service. “What you find dictates what you do,” said Mr Mann, an aerospace engineer and former airline executive. “The unexpected findings are equally problematic.”

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The developments come as a blow for Rolls-Royce barely a month after it indicated the engine issues seemed to have been resolved. The London-based company also faces a further cash drain from the extra work and potential compensation payments to carriers. Among airlines that could face disruption are British Airways and Virgin Atlantic Airways.

Even before Friday’s revelations, Rolls-Royce had said a redesign of problem parts for the 787 turbine wouldn’t be fully incorporated into the fleet until 2022. The snag has led to unscheduled shop visits for dozens of Dreamliners, costing Rolls-Royce more than £220m (Dh1.15bn) in charges last year.

Some 200 engines are due for maintenance in coming weeks, according to Rolls-Royce chief executive Warren East. However, there’s been no discussion about pausing deliveries of the 787 engine to Boeing, he said.

Nine engines in Air New Zealand’s fleet were affected, according to an April 14 statement from the airline.

Rolls-Royce also warned it would require more money and more inspections to fix problems with Trent 1000 engines.

"We sincerely regret the disruption this will cause to our customers," Mr East said.

Mr East said Rolls was working with Boeing and airlines to minimise the disruption.

"Our team of technical experts and service engineers is working around the clock to ensure we return them to full service as soon as possible," he told Reuters.

Norwegian Air, which has the engines in 15 of its 27 Boeing 787s, said it hopes to have inspected all of its engines before May 26 and that it had already found one problem that required an engine to be replaced.

"It's disappointing and frustrating that our new aircraft don't work the way they are supposed to," spokesman Lasse Sandaker-Nilsen said, adding that it had cancelled a flight from Paris to New York next week as a result.

"We have an ongoing dialogue with both Boeing and Rolls-Royce and we have been told this problem has their full attention."

Rolls said it would reprioritise spending to mitigate the costs and kept its 2018 free cash flow guidance unchanged at around £450m, give or take £100m.

Also on Friday, Boeing said it was aware of an "anti-American" legislation proposal in Russia and was studying the possible impact on its business in the country.

Russia's lower house of parliament is to consider draft legislation that would give the Kremlin powers to ban or restrict a list of US imports, reacting to new US sanctions on a group of Russian tycoons and officials.

"Boeing is aware of the draft bill and is monitoring the situation to understand what impact there may be to our ongoing business and partnerships in the region," it said.

Separately, Brazilian President Michel Temer said on Friday that he has not yet received a proposal for a tie-up between Boeing and Brazilian plane maker Embraer that is expected to entail the creation of a third company.

Speaking to reporters on arrival at the Summit of the Americas in Lima, Mr Temer said the proposal was still being studied. Sources with knowledge of the matter told Reuters on Thursday that a proposal submitted to the Brazilian government on Tuesday had the companies closer to a deal, but that there were still issues to be ironed out.