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John Lichfield

John Lichfield: Rolls-Royce stands to lose more than Qantas if investigation finds fault

The engine failure on the A380 superjumbo is a potentially serious blow to the European aircraft industry – and especially to the British engine-maker Rolls-Royce.

The incident is the third involving an A380 in the past 13 months and the second involving an aircraft with a Rolls-Royce engine. With scores of orders pending or still unconfirmed for the world's largest passenger plane, the outcome of the preliminary investigations could be commercially damaging.

The Airbus A380 can be bought with Rolls-Royce or Engine Alliance (Pratt and Whitney, General Electric and Safran) versions of its four engines. Both inflight incidents involving engines have been on Rolls-Royce-fitted aircraft.

Although the share prices of both Rolls-Royce and the Airbus parent company, EADS, dropped sharply after yesterday's incident, aviation experts in France said they thought the longer-term questions would mostly be asked of Rolls-Royce, rather than the Toulouse-based Airbus organisation.

One analyst pointed out that the giant aircraft had "performed perfectly" yesterday in making an emergency landing at Singapore with three engines. The A380 is designed to be able to fly with only two. "The plane-maker's work is not in question here," the analyst said. "It is Rolls-Royce that has to find some answers."

One of the four Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engines is believed to have suffered an explosion so violent that the rear part of the engine fell off. The Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce said: "This issue, an engine failure, has been one that we haven't seen before. So we are obviously taking it very seriously."

In September 2009, a Singapore Airlines A380 was forced to return to Paris after an engine malfunction. On 31 March this year, a Qantas A380 burst two tyres when it landed in Sydney.

The latest incident comes just as Airbus is in discussions to sell 100 smaller aircraft to China with a €3.5bn (£3.05) deal for 36 planes due to be finalised during a state visit to France by President Hu Jintao, which began yesterday.

Both Singapore Airlines, which has 11 Rolls-Royce-fitted A380s, and Qantas, which has six, grounded their aircraft for checks yesterday. Emirates has 13 A380 aircraft fitted with the alternative Engine Alliance engine, Air France has four and Lufthansa has three. All their planes continued to fly yesterday.

British Airways and Virgin Atlantic are among a number of carriers from 17 nations which have placed orders for the superjumbo. Airbus has received 234 orders and industry analysts have predicted an ultimate worldwide fleet of up to 800.

Despite design delays and higher than expected costs, the Airbus flagship aircraft has been a reasonable commercial and operating success since it entered service in 2007. The 37 A380s in service have flown 192,000 flying hours and made 21,400 commercial flights.

Airbus employs 57,000 people at 16 sites. Final assembly is at Toulouse (France), Hamburg (Germany), Seville (Spain) and Tianjin (China). Wings and other parts are made at Broughton in Flintshire (5,000 jobs) and Filton near Bristol (4,600 jobs).

The Airbus A380

* There are currently 37 Airbus A380 planes in operation.

* 20 of the A380s use the Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engines. Six are operated by Qantas, eleven by Singapore Airlines and three by Lufthansa. The Qantas fleet has been grounded until further notice. Singapore says it will delay all A380 flights. Lufthansa says it will not ground flights.

* The other 17 A380s, flown by Air France (4) and Emirates (13), use another engine. They will not be grounded.