Professionalism/Tom Williams and the Wings of the A380

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Introduction[edit | edit source]

Tom Williams is the Chief Operating Officer of Toulouse-based Airbus, a European aircraft manufacturer. [1] The Scotsman was the head of a 900 person team tasked with developing the innovative wings for the world's largest passenger plane, the A380. [2] To compete with rival Boeing's dominance in the manufacturing of jumbo passenger jets, they sought to make the wings as light as possible in order to reduce fuel consumption. The extremely lightweight materials used later proved prone to cracking. [2] This case is an important example of a technical professional making decisions based on demands coming from nontechnical company executives. The precautionary principle helps shed light on contrasting positions between Williams and the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA).

Competition and an Engineering Dilemma[edit | edit source]

Competition between Airbus and Boeing is characterized as a duopoly in the large jet airliner market. The Boeing 747 was the first wide-body airplane ever produced and led to Boeing's dominance in the market for enormous passenger jets. [3] Airbus first began studies on the A380 in the early 1990's to develop a competitor and successor to the 747. [2] This was their strategy to end Boeing's dominance, and motivated several design requirements. [4] Because airlines wanted more fuel efficient passenger planes, Airbus executives demanded that the A380 be larger and 20% more fuel efficient than the 747. [5] This presents a paradox: as aircraft become larger, their turbines and wings increase in size, leading to increases in overall weight and fuel consumption.

In order to meet these requirements, engineers used an innovative composite material and extremely lightweight aluminum alloys, even for critical parts of the wings. This design decision allowed them to substantially reduce the weight of the aircraft, and they didn't see the use of these materials as a risk. "We've used this alloy in many other aircraft in the past," Williams later said. [2] This was not a situation like that of Dan Applegate, who was confident there was a serious problem and didn't speak up. Williams and his team believed in the design.

Qantas Flight 32 and the European Aviation Safety Agency[edit | edit source]

In November 2010, the pilots of a Qantas A380 were forced to perform an emergency landing after an engine exploded shortly after take-off. The subsequent investigation revealed manufacturing defects on the wing ribs of the aircraft.

Following the discovery of cracks in the wings of several aircraft, EASA issued an Airworthiness Directive (AD) to ground 20 A380's for visual inspections. This allowed up to 6 weeks for a detailed visual inspection to be carried out.[6] According to an EASA spokesperson, these checks "found cracks in almost all of the planes inspected." [6] EASA then changed their AD to require the inspection of all Airbus A380's in operation worldwide, and the use of high-frequency eddy current equipment for crack detection. [6] Later, it was also discovered that the cracking found in the brackets of Qantas Flight 32 was actually related to a manufacturing issue and not the explosion and turbulence.

"During these inspections, minor cracking was found on some wing rib brackets. This cracking is not related to the turbulence, or specific to Qantas, but is traced back to a manufacturing issue in this specific wing area of the aircraft," said a Qantas spokesman, adding that Airbus confirmed the cracks had no effect on flight safety. [7]

Reaction of Tom Williams[edit | edit source]

Tom Williams never tried to shift the responsibility for the design failure, saying in an interview, "Ultimately, I'm responsible for this." [2] He made it clear that the workers at the wing manufacturing plant correctly followed the design specification his team provided. [8]

Since the incident, Williams has consistently advocated that the cracks don't represent a safety threat to passengers of the airlines. [8] He admitted that the testing plan made assumptions about the type of aluminum used, and claimed that nonlinear modeling tools that may have aided their analysis weren't available at the time.[9] He also pointed out that fatigue testing cannot take into account every set of operating conditions which would be encountered during a flight. [9] During a 2016 interview, Williams commented on the fact that the decision to go ahead with the A380 was made at a time when Airbus saw “Boeing making a ton of money on the 747, exchange rates were different, the oil price was different” [10]. In this interview, Tom Williams disclosed that the project may have been given the go-ahead partially for the ego satisfaction of the company leadership team, saying pride was "probably on the cusp”[10] when the decision was made.

Consequences for Airbus[edit | edit source]

Financial Backlash[edit | edit source]

Airbus estimated a cost of 1 million euros to repair the cracks in each plane that have already been delivered to airlines, totaling to about 70 million euros to repair all 69 planes in operation worldwide.[11] This estimate only included the costs of inspecting and repairing cracks, and for providing substitute aircraft to the affected airlines. [11] It didn't include the additional cost of repairing other planes currently in production which were going to be delivered in the next few months. [11] The European Aeronautic Defense and Space Company (EADS), Airbus' parent company, estimated a total cost of $131 million to repair all aircraft produced by the end of 2012. [2] They acknowledged that this amount could easily double or triple if it was found that the planes would require additional repairs. [2] Costs also include reparations to affected commercial airlines. For example, Emirates demanded 60 million euros in damages caused by lost time for repairs. [2] To break-even, Airbus executives estimated that about 250 planes would need to be sold. [2] This number was later doubled, then they finally gave up on estimated a break-even sales figure. [2]

Professional Reputation[edit | edit source]

In addition to financial consequences, Airbus faced a decline in their professional reputation as an aircraft manufacturer. Following the discovery of cracks, Airbus CEO Tom Enders said: "I don't think this will harm its reputation in the long term. The plane is very reliable and proving to be very popular. I think the airlines will stick with it. It's selling. The A380 is here to stay." [12] Despite these expectations, no orders for the A380 were placed at the most important Asian aviation convention in Singapore in mid-February of that year. [2] Rather than purchase their large aircraft from Airbus, airlines instead looked to Boeing as a more reliable and reputable manufacturer. This shows how delicate and valuable one's professional reputation truly is.

Precautionary Principle[edit | edit source]

Comic Depicting the Precautionary Principle

EASA advocated for the Precautionary Principle, which states that the introduction of a new product or process whose ultimate effects are disputed or unknown should be resisted. EASA's decision to further investigate all A380's highlights their responsibility for ensuring the safety of passengers, whether the risks were known or not. Mid-flight, the tips of the A380's wings can bend upward by over 2 meters or downward by 1 meter, and the material in the wings can vary from 70 to -50 degrees Celsius. [2] With this level of variation in pressure and temperature, ensuring the wings will maintain its structural integrity is crucial, which EASA recognized. Their advocacy for the precautionary principle is further supported with their public statement to airlines:

"This condition, if not detected and corrected, may lead to a reduction of the structural integrity of the aeroplane." [13]

In contrast to EASA's position, Tom Williams publicly condemns the Precautionary Principle, saying:

"If we had never dared to embark on new paths, aircraft would still be made of wood and canvas" [2]

He essentially argued that it was Airbus' responsibility to exceed the limits of aircraft at that time, regardless of whether or not human life was at stake. This reveals their bias towards risk-taking and their disregard for public safety.

Professionalism and Responsibility[edit | edit source]

This incident highlights an engineering dilemma caused by the industry drive for fuel efficiency as airlines begin to expect aircraft manufacturers to produce increasingly fuel-efficient planes. The A380 was expected to be even larger than the Boeing 747, yet 20% more fuel efficient. To circumvent the inevitable added weight, Williams and his engineering team subjected the A380 to extremely lightweight aluminum alloys, reducing the weight by a few hundred kilograms. [2]

Williams initially accepted full responsibility. When told to reduce the weight of the plane, Williams could have demanded that further testing and studies be done on this lightweight material. Instead, his team made assumptions on the usage of the material because it had been used in planes of much smaller size. [9] Williams claimed that these assumptions were made because non-linear modeling tools, which would've improved their analysis, were not available at the time. [9] Even with some useful tools at their disposal, the subsequent fatigue testing would never be able to account for every variation of temperature and pressure which the aircraft would have been subject to. [9] Williams made far-fetched assumptions simply because of the absence of tools and effective testing procedures, then defended his judgement by saying, "We've used this alloy in many other aircraft in the past." [2] This decision and lack of judgement can be explained by Williams' condemnation of the Precautionary Principle. Rather than leave significant room for uncertainty in the development of technology in hopes of gaining a competitive edge, he should have relied on materials that were known to be successful, especially when human life was at stake.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

The failure in Williams' judgement and his careless assumptions of the material used in the wings show how important it is to always err on the side of caution, especially when human life is at stake. While advancing certain technologies is important and even necessary in some fields, public safety should always be a priority and far-fetched assumptions should never be made. Instead of developing a larger aircraft with higher risk due to the absence of tools and testing processes, tried-and-true materials should have been used; it's better to be safe than sorry.

When Airbus initially made the decision to build the A380, former Boeing executive Harry Stonecipher said: "Don't get in your rival's way when he's making mistakes." [2] He was referring to the developmental problems that occurred when developing the 787 Dreamliner, which was the first commercial airliner to use mostly composites instead of aluminum. Airbus completely ignored the fact that the 787 experienced cracking in its wings, yet attempted to make the A380 even larger and more fuel-efficient and was therefore destined for failure. It is therefore important to learn from the mistakes of others working in the same field.

This case also highlights how delicate and valuable one's professional reputation is. Once Airbus was associated with the manufacturing of potentially dangerous aircraft, airlines began to turn away from Airbus and instead purchase their larger aircraft from Boeing. While Airbus hoped the A380 would give them a competitive edge, it only led to their downfall in the market because they failed to efficiently manage their reputation. Any change in a company's reputation within their industry can have devastating effects and influence how customers and clients view them. In addition, reputation management may have mitigated any negative consequences that Airbus would have faced. Rather than proactively address the concerns of airlines, Airbus simply denied that any safety risks were present.

Lastly, Airbus allowed hubris to influence their objectives. To compete with Boeing, Airbus framed its metrics for an elite aircraft as one that's larger and more fuel-efficient than the Boeing 747. Years after the discovery, Williams said in an interview that "the days when we did some projects for ego, valour or pride are gone," [10] referring to their decision to develop the A380. Competition with Boeing was a motive behind the decision to develop the A380, and while competition is often important, it should never be the sole driver of engineering objectives.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Tom Williams. Airbus Press Office.
  2. a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p Deckstein, D. & Traufetter, G. (2012, March 21). The A380 and the Aviation Engineering Dilemma.
  3. Zhang, B. (2016, February 10). The Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet Changed Air Travel with this Momentous Event 47 Years Ago.
  4. Modern Airliners. History of the Airbus A380.
  5. Norris, G., & Wagner, M. (2005). Airbus A380: superjumbo of the 21st century. Zenith Press. pp. 7-16
  6. a b c Falzon, B. (2012, February 9). The Airbus A380 Wing Cracks: An Engineer's Perspective.
  7. Kaminski-Morrow, D. (2012, January 19). Airbus initially traced these A380 wing cracks to the manufacturing process.
  8. a b Servini, N. (2012, May 8). Airbus finds solution to cracks in Broughton-made wings.
  9. a b c d e Kaminski-Morrow, D. (2012, May 24). Airbus Admits No Quick-Fix for A380 Wing-Rib Crack Issue.
  10. a b c Tovey, A. (2016, February 20). Meet Tom Williams, Airbus's Mr Fixit.
  11. a b c Spiegel Online. (2012, February 13). Hairline Cracks Could Cost EADS 100 Million Euros.
  12. Gilbert, D. (2012, February 8). What Will Airbus A380 Fault Mean for Passengers and Airlines?
  13. Frost, L. & Hepher, T. (2012, February 8). Aribus A380 Wing Checks Extend to Entire Fleet.