Christmas flight chaos as Boeing 787 engine failures risk grounding thousands of passengers

Blades in the engines are wearing out quicker than expected

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Friday 08 December 2017 16:08 GMT
Simon Calder: Christmas flight chaos as Boeing 787 engine failures risk grounding planes

Tens of thousands of airline passengers worldwide could see their flights cancelled over Christmas and New Year as problems with some Rolls-Royce engines fitted to the Boeing 787 proliferate.

Turbine blades in the engines are wearing out much quicker than expected, affecting around 200 planes and causing problems for a range of airlines including British Airways and Virgin Atlantic.

This week Air New Zealand grounded some of its 787-9 aircraft after two near-identical inflight incidents on successive days involving turbine blades.

Flights to Tokyo and Buenos Aires both encountered “abnormal indications” during the climb from Auckland and returned to base. Passengers reported hearing “clunking” and feeling severe vibrations. The aircraft landed safely.

As New Zealand’s Transport Accident Investigation Commission assesses the incidents, the two planes and another pair of the same type have been grounded — causing delays and cancellations that could last for weeks.

On Friday, three long-haul flights were grounded, while others were delayed by up to eight hours. Future cancellations and rescheduling will be announced on a rolling basis, while the airline tries to source replacement aircraft and crews

A spokesperson for Air New Zealand said: “We’re continuing to assess the situation daily.” Passengers on grounded flights are being offered transfers to other flights or refunds.

Air New Zealand was the launch airline for the Boeing 787-9 in 2014. Services between Heathrow, Los Angeles and Auckland are operated by Boeing 777s, and are unaffected.

BA has grounded its Heathrow-Doha service every day for a month in order to free up capacity while its Dreamliner fleet is checked.

A spokesperson for the airline told The Independent: “Like several airlines around the world, we are carrying out detailed precautionary inspections on Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 engines which are fitted to our Boeing 787s, as part of the engine manufacturer's long-term maintenance and service programme.

“To facilitate the engine inspections we have had to make some minor schedule adjustments and are rebooking customers onto alternative services or offering them a refund.”

British Airways’ daily Heathrow-Doha link is normally operated by Boeing 777s, but the aircraft are being deployed on routes served by 787s. The route is regarded as the most replaceable of all BA’s long-haul services, because Qatar Airways — which owns one-fifth of British Airways’ parent company, IAG — has six daily flights on the route onto which displaced BA passengers can be accommodated. During the Mixed Fleet cabin crew strike this summer, Heathrow-Doha was cancelled almost every day.

Virgin Atlantic has also "temporarily parked" some 787s, and has taken “a number of steps to protect customer journeys”.

Its partner and part-owner, Delta, is operating two of Virgin’s daily flights from Heathrow: the late morning service to Atlanta and the early afternoon flight to New York JFK. The arrangement continues to the end of February, after which Virgin Atlantic will acquire four Airbus A330s.

In August, the Rolls-Royce chief executive, Warren East, told investors: “Some parts of the [Trent 1000] engine are turning out not to last as long in service as their original design lives. As with any mechanical components, they wear out. And you have a design life and you expect to replace those components, and it turns out on inspection that we had to replace them sooner rather than later.”

A spokesperson for the engine maker told The Independent: “We sincerely regret any disruption caused by our engine that our customer is experiencing and we are working together to minimise this impact and restore full flight operations as soon as possible.”

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