An air safety regulator has called for immediate action after a flaw was discovered in engines used by budget carrier Hong Kong Express that could cause both engines to shut down mid-flight.
The European Air Safety Agency (Easa) issued an “emergency airworthiness directive” (EAD) on Friday relating to engines made by American aerospace firm Pratt and Whitney for the Airbus A320neo, a new generation of single-aisle aircraft.
It warned if the problem was not addressed, a “dual engine” shutdown could happen mid-flight.
There have already been cases of engine shutdowns that have caused pilots to halt take-offs, prompting the agency to take notice.
Hong Kong Express said one of its aircraft was affected, with one of two engines had an issue, but due to the specific actions ordered by the European air safety regulator, its aircraft could still fly for the meantime.
The aircraft, registered B-LCN, had not flown for 12 days up to February 10.
“Therefore, the operation of HKEA’s fleet of all four A320 NEOs aircrafts fulfill the requirement of the EAD, and no further action is needed according to the EAD. And [the airline] will keep close monitoring to the technical condition to all the A320NEO aircraft.”
A number of airlines around the world, including locally based Hong Kong Express, have been affected by Pratt and Whitney engine issues on the Airbus 320neo planes over the past two years. These have caused more than a dozen aircraft to be grounded at any one time.
Pratt and Whitney said the latest problem stemmed from the engine’s high pressure compressor and that only a small number were affected.
“This issue is isolated to a limited subpopulation of engines,” it said in a statement.
The aerospace maker added that aircraft with the engines would be managed according to “the operational instructions issued by Airbus and coordinated between Airbus and Pratt and Whitney as needed”.
Airbus said it had informed affected customers and operators, noting it had 113 Pratt and Whitney-powered A320neo aircraft flying with 18 carriers.
Easa said airlines should “address this potentially unsafe condition” by replacing at least one of the two engines if both were affected.
However, carriers could only fly two of the affected engines for three more flights from Friday’s emergency notice. And at no point would airlines be allowed to fly on only one engine.
Three of Hong Kong Express’ five A320neo models were flying on Saturday.
The civil aviation authority confirmed all concerned aircraft had been checked.
“CAD will monitor the progress of the investigation by the manufacturer to ensure the safe operations of the aircraft concerned,” a spokeswoman said.
The heightened prospect of planes being taken out of service would be unwelcome news for the local carrier. It overhauled its management and focused on being more punctual and reliable after cancelling 18 flights last September before a major Chinese public holiday. The cancellations led the CAD to punish the airline and ban it from expanding for six months.
The unreliability of Pratt and Whitney engines on the A320neo models have caused significant headaches for Airbus and airlines operating the new generation of short-haul planes. Hong Kong Express was one of the first to operate the model.
One Hong Kong Express aircraft, a registered B-LCM, had an issue with metal parts rubbing against one another. Ultimately, the plane was grounded early in its operation, for 25 days from February last year.
Based at Hong Kong International Airport and backed by the financially troubled Chinese conglomerate HNA Group, Hong Kong Express has a fleet of 23 single-aisle aircraft. It flies to 26 destinations in Asia.
A Hong Kong-based aircraft engineer who declined to be identified said the European air safety notice “some airlines” might have to ground planes given the limited availability of Pratt and Whitney equipment.
A lack of readily available spare parts is an inherent challenge of flying new types of aircraft. If many airlines experience teething troubles, the high demand for extra supplies could result in some aircraft staying grounded.
Additional reporting by Reuters