PARIS - European air safety regulators yesterday ordered inspections of the entire fleet of Airbus A380 jets for tiny cracks in a wing component, extending a directive that had applied to only about a third of the 68 superjumbos in service.
The news that the cracks, which began surfacing on dozens of wing brackets late last year, could be more widespread comes at a time when Airbus’s chief rival, Boeing, is also grappling with what it said Tuesday were minor defects on its 787 “Dreamliner’’ - refocusing attention on the teething pains that often accompany the roll-out of new planes.
The broadening of the A380 checks followed a decision by Qantas Airways of Australia to ground one of its planes this week after dozens of cracks were found on wing brackets during a maintenance check. That aircraft, one of 12 A380s Qantas flies, had encountered heavy turbulence during a flight in early January, but it had not come under the scope of the regulators’ previous order, which was issued on Jan. 20.
The European Aviation Safety Agency said all seven airlines that operate the A380 will now be required to inspect their planes for the hairline fissures within the next six weeks. A previous order applied only to the most heavily used planes in the fleet: those that had flown more than 1,300 take-off and landing cycles.
Since late last year, two types of cracks have been identified in L-shaped brackets that connect the aluminum skin of the A380’s enormous wings to its structural ribs, which are made of a combination of metal and lightweight, plastic-based composites. About 40 brackets - each about 8 inches long - are on each rib, with a total of 2,000 brackets spanning each wing.
Airbus has repeatedly described both problems as minor and said that while the brackets needed to be replaced, they did not pose an imminent safety risk. The plane maker said last month that it had traced the problem to a manufacturing process that has since been modified.
Thomas Woodward, a Qantas spokesman, said the cracks the airline found on its A380 were unrelated to the turbulence incident and had been traced to the manufacturing issues identified by Airbus. He added that the airline expected the plane to be repaired and back in service within a week.
The attention paid to the A380’s latest troubles highlights the scrutiny that new jets often receive in their early years. In the case of the A380, which entered service in 2007, and Boeing’s 787, which was first delivered last September, the attention has been magnified by production hiccups that delayed both planes by more than two years.
On Tuesday, Boeing said it had identified a production problem affecting the rear fuselage of the 787 but also stressed that it posed no short-term safety issue. It said there was no need for immediate inspection of the five 787s currently in service with All Nippon Airways of Japan.
Randy Tinseth, Boeing’s vice president for marketing, confirmed in a blog post that “incorrect shimming was done on the support structure of the aft fuselage of some 787s.’’ A shim is a spacer used to fill small gaps between components that commonly occur in manufacturing.
Tinseth said Boeing had devised a fix for the problem and work had already started on some 787s that are still on assembly lines. The repairs should take no more than a few days, he said, adding that 787 customers awaiting delivery had been informed of the issue. He did not say whether there would be an impact on delivery schedules. ANA had been due to receive its next 787 later this month.
In a statement, the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates Boeing, said it had determined there was “no immediate safety of flight issue’’ with the 787 but that it was working with the plane maker to “finalize an acceptable corrective action plan to cover all the affected aircraft.’’
Analysts downplayed the impact the discovery of the defects would have on the companies’ overall safety image.
“I think there has been a sea change in the manner and approach that Airbus and Boeing have taken in responding immediately when a problem has emerged,’’ said Howard Wheeldon, senior strategist at BGC Partners, a London brokerage.