Wing-Spar Crack Repairs Slow Down Airbus A380 Return To Service
Operators of older Airbus A380s are finding that cracks in some areas of wing spars are making a return to service a significantly longer process, as inspections and repairs take weeks to complete.
Airbus has sent around 60 engineers to Dubai “to deal with the problem,” Emirates Airline President Tim Clark told Aviation Week. “Airbus is fixing everything. We have to get the spars reworked in various areas.”
Emirates is by far the largest operator of the aircraft with 84 flying now and was the second customer to take delivery of the type following Singapore Airlines in 2008. The airline currently has four aircraft on the ground awaiting repairs, one of which has been flown to Airbus’ Toulouse site for rework as the airline is struggling to find sufficient hangar space elsewhere. “This is inhibiting us,” Clark said. Other airlines did not comment officially.
“They started seeing cracks appearing so [the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA)] got involved,” Clark said. “As usual, some [aircraft] are worse than others. It is not a safety issue at the moment—we are nowhere near that. But we will have to have a regular inspection program going forward.”
The affected areas are the top and bottom flanges of the outer rear spar (ORS) between ribs 33 and 49, the outer inner front spar (OIFS) between ribs 8 and 14 and the outer front spar between ribs 38 and 49.
EASA and Airbus had determined as early as 2019 that aircraft have to be inspected 15 years after the date of the wingbox assembly. But earlier this year one younger A380 was dismantled. “We found a higher number of cracks than we were used to and outside of the areas that we knew,” said Pierre Henri Brousse, Airbus’ head of the A380 program. “We launched a stress analysis and found that there was no particular issue [that needed to be addressed].”
By now, Airbus and A380 operators have looked at around 20 aircraft that had reached the 15-year threshold at time of inspection. “On most of the aircraft we found something,” Brousse said, including on five that had not yet reached the 15-year limit. Because of the early program delays—the first A380 delivery took place more than two years later than initially expected—there are cases in which wingboxes were produced years before actual entry-into-service of the aircraft, meaning “younger” aircraft can be affected, too, if wings had been stored for an extended period.
Following the findings, the maintenance limit was pulled forward. EASA published an airworthiness directive (AD) on Aug. 31, 2022, expanding on a 2019 directive. In the AD, EASA said: “Occurrences have been reported of finding cracks in the affected areas of the wing ORS on in-service A380 aeroplanes. This condition, if not detected and corrected, could reduce the structural integrity of the wing.” The 2019 AD, based on Airbus’ service bulletin A380-57-8263, had initially set the 15-year limit. However, “since that AD was issued, it has been determined that additional areas may be affected by the same unsafe condition, and that all MSN (manufacturer serial numbers) must be inspected.” EASA added that “recent inspection results have indicated the need for ORS inspection from 15 years to 12.5 years.” Also, inspections have to be repeated every three years.
EASA also made clear in August that “the threshold might be further amended upon completion of the currently ongoing analysis.” Brousse said Dec. 14 that, while younger aircraft have been investigated, so far no findings on aircraft with wingbox completion dates of less than 12.5 years require a change in the inspection and repair regime at this point.
According to Airbus, wing inspections take about one week. The non-destructive test inspections can typically be performed by airlines in-house. Brousse said that Airbus has no plans for wing spar redesigns. Affected parts can be repaired through local stopholes or reinforcements, or will be replaced. Stopholes can be introduced in one shift, while the more extensive repairs can take one week per area affected.
The spar cracks are not the first time Airbus has had to deal with wing defects. In 2012 Airbus discovered a much broader issue, finding the early development of cracks in certain wing rib feet for which a composite material including a lighter aluminum alloy (Al 7449) was used. The manufacturer introduced a retrofit and forward-fit program that replaced the Al 7449 composite with the more traditional Al 7010 at the time. According to Brousse, there is no connection between the two issues as Al 7085 is used for the spars.
According to the Aviation Week Network Fleet Discovery database, Qantas currently operates the only three aircraft in revenue service that are older than 12.5 years, though the real threshold of wingbox production is unclear. VH-OQB is the Australian carrier’s fleet leader at 14.5 years. Singapore Airlines was the first carrier to take delivery of an A380 in October 2007, but that aircraft and several more of its early A380s have either been scrapped or are stored.
Emirates received its first A380 in July 2008, but that aircraft and several more have been scrapped. Clark said that the airline is pulling younger A380s from storage first to deal with the wing spar repairs and limit the capacity effect.
Etihad has become the latest carrier to announce the return of the A380 from storage, in its case for next summer. Etihad’s A380s are between 5.5 and eight years old. Before Etihad, the following carriers had reactivated parts of their A380 fleets: All Nippon Airways, Asiana, British Airways, Emirates, Korean Air, Qantas, Qatar Airways and Singapore Airlines. Emirates has the largest active fleet with 84 aircraft and plans to operate close to 120 of them ultimately.
Lufthansa is another airline that will return the A380 next year, moving its base from Frankfurt to Munich. The German carrier will only take up to five of its eight remaining aircraft out of long-term storage. Six more have been sold to Airbus and are in the process of being handed back to the manufacturer. Four of Lufthansa’s A380s are now older than 12.5 years.
Air France, China Southern and Malaysia Airlines have permanently retired the type.
According to Aviation Week Network’s Tracked Aircraft Utilization tool, the combined A380 fleet operated 5,300 cycles in November—more than twice as many as the 2,400 in November 2021.