The Airbus A380 has only been in service for five years, but the aircraft has clearly received much more coverage regarding technical failures than Airbus would have wished. The most dramatic event happened on Nov 4., 2010, when a Qantas A380 experienced an uncontained failure of a Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engine shortly after take-off. But in the end, something good came out of the event, too. It showed quite impressively how resilient the aircraft and its systems were, even taking into account the serious damage it had incurred.

In January 2012, the European press in particular was again full of reports over what has been described as “wing cracks.” They were discovered in one aircraft during maintenance of wing rib-feet, the connecting part between the wing skin and ribs,and then in others. Singapore Airlines had to temporarily take some A380s out of service for repairs.

At first glance, it seems surprising that such damage would develop so early in the aircraft's operating career. If the cracks were the result of material fatigue due to the heavy loads during routine flying, the stress inflicted on them would have been seriously miscalculated. But Airbus' analysis shows that instead, the undue stress apparently was prompted in production, not from flying.

That is a very important finding, because it likely means no expensive and potentially disrupting redesign has to be developed. Changing the assembly process is much easier. Disruptions and some rather lengthy repair activity cannot be ruled out yet if inspections ordered by EASA turn up more findings.

Even with all the modern testing and modeling techniques available today, it is not surprising that there are issues to be resolved in a very ambitious program such as the A380. That has been true for the production ramp-up, but also for in-service experience gained over time. Emirates in particular has been outspoken that for some time it has not been happy with the A380's dispatch reliability given numerous little items that impact operations. The wing rib-feet cracks are now the first serious damage on the aircraft's structural side.

Authorities watch the A380 with great interest. While Airbus proposed that operators should inspect their aircraft during the next C check (meaning that they would have continued flying for a significant amount of time before inspecting for cracks), EASA clearly thought otherwise, ordering inspections within days rather than months.

It is remarkable how different the Airbus proposal and EASA orders were. While there may have been other considerations in play in the case of an agency that is still trying to become established vis-à-vis Europe's national authorities, EASA's strict position also has deserved some understanding.

The A380 is still a young aircraft and all stakeholders are still learning.