Europe’s air safety regulator EASA has ordered inspections of the entire Airbus A380 fleet after an initial round of checks found wing cracks in nearly every one of the superjumbo jets inspected so far.
In a safety directive issued on Wednesday, EASA said the cracks “may lead to a reduction of the structural integrity of the aeroplane” if not found and fixed.
The order comes after Qantas said it had grounded one of its A380s (VH-OQF) for repairs after finding 36 hairline cracks inside its wings. Similar cracks were first discovered during ongoing repairs of another of Qantas A380, VH-OQA Nancy-Bird Walton, which suffered an engine explosion near Singapore in late 2010.
EASA last month ordered inspections on 20 of the most heavily used A380s, operated by Singapore Airlines, Air France and Emirates. Wednesday’s order means that the remaining 48 aircraft in the A380 fleet will also need to be inspected by the time they reach 1300 flights.
Qantas owns 12 of the 525 seat double-deckers, the world’s largest passenger aircraft. Lufthansa, China Southern and Korean Air also operate A380s.
Airbus has blamed a combination of manufacturing and design flaws for the cracks, which have been found in L-shaped brackets connecting metal ribs to the interior of the wings. The planemaker says the problem parts are “not a primary load-bearing structure” and insists that cracks were discovered long before they posed any safety risk.
Still, the widening scope of the problem is a troubling sign for Airbus just four years after the A380 went into service. Though relatively popular, the $390m plane has not sold as well as hoped, and Airbus is not expected to turn a profit on the program until 2015. Qatar Airways said last month that it might consider delaying delivery of its A380s if the problem persists.
The discovery of more cracks also raises the risk of a consumer backlash, a worrying prospect for Qantas, which operates the A380 as its flagship on premier long haul routes.
The union representing Qantas engineers called for immediate inspections of all the carrier’s A380s after the cracks were first discovered in early January. At the time, Qantas said it would defer to Airbus. “They are the experts and we will take their advice,” a spokesman said.
Airbus is not alone in discovering early problem with a high profile aircraft, however. Boeing this week disclosed a manufacturing defect related to the aft fuselage of its 787 and said it would be forced to make repairs on some of the composite built aircraft, which entered commercial service only late last year.