Airbus acknowledges that it has "still got work to do" to get the A380's reliability to match the level of the passenger appeal it has delivered during its first two years in service.
"Keeping in mind the level of technology that we've brought to the aircraft, it's been encouraging to see the level of performance that we've got - but we can do better," says Airbus executive vice-president programmes, Tom Williams. "We've still got some work to do."
When the A380 entered service two years ago with Singapore Airlines, Airbus laid on an extremely intense network of "enhanced support", positioning additional engineers, mechanics and personnel from Toulouse into Singapore and the first outstation, Sydney.
A similar amount of assistance has been provided for Emirates and Qantas, and those support levels remain "heavy", says Williams. "As each airline takes more aircraft they open up new routes, so we're having to extend support. Although this was always envisaged, we're certainly providing a heavier level of support than we originally planned."
| © H.Gousse/Airbus
Williams concedes that Airbus was "disappointed" and surprised about problems that began to crop up after a strong first few months of operation, given the preparations it had made.
"We used the extended time between certification and delivery to do a lot of extra flying work on maturity. But we still encountered things when we went into service that hadn't shown up before.
"Why? Because there are a different set of pressures during testing to what an airline experiences. The operators have put it into a very intense operation - straight on to premium routes with very fast turnarounds."
Williams adds that the exceptionally good first few months with SIA's initial aircraft - where there were no technical delays or cancellations - may have mislead the airframer, as problems then begun to occur as the fleet and network expanded.
To begin addressing the much-criticised nuisance fault warnings that Emirates in particular fingers as the culprit behind the ongoing disappointing technical despatch reliability, a new software upload has been implemented.
"We've just issued a new 'batch 2' software which we think will cut out about 40% of the nuisance messages as it is often information that the pilot can't really do much with," says Williams.
He says that Airbuses have a reputation with flightcrews for being too "talkative" and this has been compounded by the newness of the A380. "With a new aircraft all the default rules are probably much more stringent as people are learning how to use the aeroplane.
"The crews have a feeling that the aircraft is talking to them too much - telling them things that are interesting but not really essential - and the pilot's default will be 'let's not go'."
SIA's senior vice-president flight operations Capt Gerard Yeap highlights the potential pitfalls of aircraft systems providing too much data: "We have to be careful we don't have information overload - that we don't fall into the trap of wanting to know so much you end up not knowing anything".
Williams says another issue that has led to unnecessary delays or cancellations is the fact that as the A380 is a new type, the minimum equipment list was initially written in "a very strict way because you're gaining experience of the aeroplane. So from the customers' point of view he may see something flagged as a no-go item on an A380 that wouldn't have been on an A330."
Faults flagged on the aircraft's post flight report (PFR) are investigated by the troubleshooting manual (TSM), which can be a lengthy process if there are, say, six potential root causes to be checked, says Williams.
"The airlines have asked for a bit more prioritisation of the TSM, as statistically there are some problems that are the more likely ones which should be eliminated first. But this requires experience of the aircraft and is something that over time you build up a better understanding of."
| © H.Gousse/Airbus
Williams shares Emirates Airline president Tim Clark's doubts about any early success in the fleet reaching the 98.5% TDR target. "I think we're closing on it pretty fast, but not by the end of this year. I'd be confident we'd be there by the middle of next year. We've still got a bit of work to do."
The spurious error-message woes have been further heightened by issues with sensors in certain parts of the aircraft, such as the nose-gear and body-gear steering systems, and fuel quantity management system. These were due to either over-sensitivity, water contamination that confused the logic, or a combination of the two, and have been addressed by design changes to the sensors.
Williams says the reliability improvement drive is being aided by "a combination of pro-active and reactive design work going on from engineering point of view. We're taking the operator experience we've had now and looking at things again with design engineers so that we can have a more robust design."
Pressure is also being applied to certain suppliers to up their performance: "We've got guarantees with all our suppliers on MTBR [mean time between unplanned replacement] and there are a few who are still not quite there yet".
Airbus is rolling out additional innovations on the A380 in the coming months, including the electronic logbook (a function of the on-board information system) and brake to vacate (BTV) autobraking functions. "The E-logbook is part of Airbus's evolution to a more paperless cockpit. We have one operator trialling it and the rest will have it on a test basis by the end of the year," says Williams.
BTV, which enables the pilot to designate the runway exit point and allow the autobrake to modulate the retardation, is being debuted by the latest A380 customer, Air France.