Air New Zealand has temporarily suspended some of its international routes, affecting almost 14,000 passengers, due to issues impacting some of the Rolls-Royce engines fitted to its Boeing 787-9 fleet. 

The airline said in a press release that Rolls-Royce, whose engines power civil as well as military planes, requires operators of its Trent 1000 TEN model engines to carry out more frequent maintenance due to an issue with the engine’s high-pressure turbine blades.

Air New Zealand, which has 10 Trent 1000 TEN engines fitted to its 787-9 fleet (comprised of 14 planes), said Rolls-Royce does not have any replacement engines available while maintenance work is underway and has told Air New Zealand that “there’s significant wait for repair services”. 

Schedule changes are now unavoidable. Further changes may also be required as the airline progresses the engine checks,” reads a press release from the airline. 

Air New Zealand’s senior fleet manager 787 captain Dave Wilson said: “Based on the maintenance needs of our engines, we expect some will need to be inspected in December and January and then serviced by Rolls-Royce offshore and unfortunately, Rolls-Royce has no capacity to alleviate this pressure.

“We have 14 787-9 Dreamliner aircraft in our fleet and four spare engines to power these. However, all these spare engines are with Rolls Royce offshore either undergoing service or waiting for a service slot,” he added. 

Which routes will be affected? 

The airline has suspended its twice-weekly seasonal Christchurch-Perth service calling it the most “substantive of changes”. A total of 62 flights have been cancelled. This route would normally operate between 14 December 2019 through to 28 March 2020. 

The airline will also cancel its second daily Auckland-Perth service from 10 December 2019 until 5 January 2020, but will continue to operate its 11:10am Auckland-Perth and 6:50pm Perth-Auckland services as scheduled.

Outside the Perth route, the following international cancellations will also take place between 10 December 2019 and 2 January  2020: (all dates given in local time):

Flight Route Status
NZ105 Auckland – Sydney Cancelled 29 December
NZ108 Sydney – Auckland Cancelled 29 December
NZ107 Auckland – Sydney Cancelled 12 December, 2 January
NZ109 Auckland – Sydney Cancelled 10, 13, 16, 17, 18, 29 December
NZ110 Sydney – Auckland Cancelled 12 December, 2 January
NZ112 Sydney – Auckland Cancelled 10, 13, 16, 17, 18, 29 December
NZ270 Auckland – Tonga Cancelled 30 December
NZ273 Tonga – Auckland Cancelled 30 December

Air New Zealand said it will start processing changes to customers’ bookings this week and then directly contact customers affected by these changes with new travel information. Customers booked via a travel agent (including online travel agents) will be contacted by their booking agent. The latest information on any changes will also be published on the Travel Alerts section of the Air New Zealand website (the airline says it encourages customers to check this before calling the airline’s contact centre). Customers can also directly message the airline through its social media channels.

Air New Zealand senior manager customer care and communications Doug Grant said while the airline never expected to still be facing issues with its Rolls-Royce engines, it’s well placed to navigate these with the least impact to customers.

“Going into the holiday season we’re acutely aware how important travel is to our customers, and our schedule changes are designed to keep cancellations to a minimum.

“Unfortunately, around 14,000 customers will be impacted by cancellations and we thank them in advance for their understanding.”

Ongoing issues with Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 engines

Air New Zealand, which selected the Trent 1000 for its two firm Dreamliner orders back in 2004, said it has been managing issues with the Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 engines since December 2017, when it first secured leased aircraft capacity to help maintain its timetable. The airline still has one wide-body aircraft on lease from Taiwanese carrier EVA Air in its fleet.

Air New Zealand took aircraft from Hi-Fly on a wet lease basis (with the crew, maintenance and insurance included; a “dry lease” does not include these things) in late 2017. It wet-leased an A330 and an A340 to cover a shortfall in capacity caused by unexpected maintenance on the Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 engines that power its Boeing 787-9 fleet, Flight Global reported at the time. In April 2018. it leased an additional A340 from Hi Fly.

A number of airlines have experienced setbacks due to issues with Rolls-Royce’s Trent 1000 engines.

The issue started in August 2016 when Japan’s All Nippon Airways (ANA) discovered that under certain flying conditions the compressor blades in the engine’s interior showed corrosion, according to a Reuters report at the time. The engine type had suffered a previous corrosion issue on the gearbox in 2012 but that was “quickly resolved”.

Multiple airline operators of the engine type were affected. For example, in July 2017, Thailand’s flag carrier Thai Airways was forced to ground part of its 787-8 fleet owing to turbine replacement issues with the Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 engine, according to Flight Global.

In May 2018, Rolls-Royce ramped up capacity to fix the issue, including trebling of maintenance capacity for affected engines, the introduction of a new inspection technique and the acceleration of a permanent fix for the issue.

In September 2018, Rolls Royce discovered durability issues on a new batch of Trent 1000s (so-called “Package B” engines; the engines initially affected were called “Package C”). Roughly 166 of the so-called Package B engines had to be inspected after cracking was discovered on intermediate pressure compressor blades, a problem already identified on Package C engines, the Financial Times reported. This brought to 549 the number of engines that had to be inspected. Regulators imposed limitations on engines with these durability issues, forcing some airlines to fly different routes. A shortage of spare turbines also slowed the inspection process, grounding dozens of aircraft. Airlines had to lease passenger jets to continue flying.

Newer Trent 1000 TEN suffers issues

Then, in April 2019, the more newly released Trent 1000 TEN – an upgraded version of the Trent 1000 (the engine type whose B and C packages suffered the abovementioned issues) – hit problems when premature blade deterioration was discovered on some engines. Singapore Airlines grounded two of its 787-10 jets fitted with the Trent 1000 TEN engines at the start of April.

In a financial results briefing this August, Rolls-Royce CEO Warren East acknowledged that premature blade deterioration on Trent 1000s continues to cause Boeing 787 operators “significant disruption” as aircraft are parked so that the engines can be serviced, but said the issues were causing “an awful lot less disruption” than in 2018.

Earlier this month, Rolls-Royce said it had been forced to delay the introduction of a redesigned high-pressure blade for the Trent 1000 TEN, after discovering that it will not be as durable as initially expected. The company now says the revised blade is “unlikely” to be ready before the first half of 2021. It was originally planned to be introduced in early 2020.

It’s worth noting that the issues Air New Zealand is discussing in its announcement today about flight suspensions relates to its Trent 1000 TEN engines, not its Package C Trent 1000s.

“There is no impact to the airline’s 22 Trent 1000 Package C model engines as a result of this HPT [high pressure turbine] blade issue,” Air New Zealand said in its press release.

If you’re struggling to get your head around the ongoing Trent 1000 issues, you’re not alone. The bottom line for business travellers is that airlines that operate the engines may continue to adjust their schedules until the issues are resolved.

For those seeking more in-depth technical information about the issues, Rolls-Royce has published a good explainer on its website here.

Additional reporting on the history of the Trent 1000 issue by Michael Allen