QANTAS has taken the first tentative step to return an Airbus A380 to service on Saturday, after grounding its superjumbo fleet following the mid-air engine explosion on flight QF32 almost three weeks ago.
But a cloud still hangs over the bulk of its A380 fleet. As many as 16 of the troubled Rolls-Royce Trent 900 jet engines may have ''a bigger likelihood of having a problem'' and need to be replaced or modified, Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce said, which ''still could be some time away''.
Qantas does not yet hold unqualified confidence in the return of all A380 services: the airline has imposed its own operating restrictions not to use engines to full thrust, unless the pilots need to, and to limit the superjumbo to the British route only, for now. Flight restrictions would remain ''until we're comfortable with the history and the information we'll get from the continued operation over the next few weeks'', Mr Joyce said.
The engines will be restricted to 70,000 pounds of thrust (the power level of Singapore Airlines' A380 engines) - 2000 pounds under their official maximum.
''This is an operational decision by Qantas … it is not a manufacturer's directive,'' the airline said.
But Mr Joyce could not say when Qantas would be confident to fly the A380 across the Pacific Ocean to Los Angeles, where maximum engine thrust is typically used to overcome headwinds heading west and heavy passenger and freight payloads on the long, over-water route.
The airline wants to see how the aircraft performs on the London route first.
''We want to make sure that we're 100 per cent sure of the aircraft before we put them on the LA route, which requires this extra use of thrust,'' Mr Joyce said.
Australia's Civil Aviation Safety Authority has approved Qantas's plan for reintroducing the A380. Air crew are flying the first plane back from Los Angeles, in readiness for Saturday's flight, QF31, from Sydney to London, via Singapore, which Mr Joyce will be aboard, a move to redress shaken public confidence.
It has had two of its troubled Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engines replaced (with one overhauled by Rolls-Royce, one swapped from another A380), while its other two engines have been checked and deemed fit for operation.
A second A380 is expected to depart Los Angeles for Sydney later this week, before a return to service at a time yet to be announced.
With two new Airbus A380s due to join the fleet before the year's end, Qantas could have four of the double-decker aircraft operating in the busy Christmas period.
The airline will be seeking financial compensation from Rolls-Royce for disruption and brand damage, Mr Joyce said.
''Rolls-Royce are aware of the issues that this has caused us and they know … the brand damage and the issues that's caused for the aircraft,'' he said.