Keith Leverkuhn is serving as Boeing’s eyes and ears at Rolls factories in Singapore and Derby, England, where the Trent 1000 engine is manufactured and being repaired.
Boeing has dispatched a prominent executive to help Rolls-Royce Holdings work through escalating engine problems that have grounded dozens of 787 Dreamliners.
Keith Leverkuhn is serving as Boeing’s eyes and ears at Rolls factories in Singapore and Derby, England, where the Trent 1000 engine is manufactured and being repaired. Leverkuhn, an engineer with expertise in propulsion, is best known for steering Boeing’s 737 MAX through development to its commercial debut a year ago, months ahead of schedule.
Leverkuhn’s special assignment to Rolls signals the importance Boeing is placing on containing the disruption to its marquee jetliner — and placating airline customers as the crucial summer travel season approaches. About 34 Dreamliners are parked and awaiting repaired engines, and the number is at risk of rising in the coming months, said people familiar with the matter, who asked not to be identified because the details are private.
“We’re managing our assets both on the production line and in field support to try and minimize impact to our global airline customers,” Boeing Chief Executive Officer Dennis Muilenburg said on the sidelines of the manufacturer’s April 30 annual meeting. “This is very important to us. While the new engines going into the production system are not affected, engines in the installed fleet around the world — they need our attention.”
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It’s not unusual for aerospace manufacturers to deploy teams of engineers or mechanics to help struggling suppliers to troubleshoot problems. Less common is Boeing Commercial Airplanes Chief Kevin McAllister’s decision to divert a vice president like Leverkuhn, 57, from an assignment to shepherd the upgraded version of the 737, the company’s biggest source of profit.
“We said we would work as closely as possible with Boeing and our airline customers, and this is a great example of that partnership working,” London-based Rolls said in an email.
Durability problems on engines that power about a quarter of the global 787 fleet emerged in 2016, and intensified in December when Air New Zealand Dreamliners suffered in-flight turbine damage on successive days. The problems center on potential cracking of the Trent’s intermediate pressure-compressor blades, and it could take Rolls four years to retrofit the 383 affected engines with redesigned components.
The number of parked planes mushroomed after U.S. regulators in April ordered stepped-up inspections of the engine variant, known as the Trent 1000 Package C.
Dreamliner operators that rely on the power plant for so-called ETOPS routes, typically over ocean routes with few diversionary airports, are now required to check for signs of cracking or unusual wear after every 80 flights. That means taking the planes out of service on a near-monthly basis — far more onerous than the previous standard of checks every 200 flights.
About 30 percent of inspected engines have been removed from the wing for repairs, the people familiar with the matter said. The failure rate could worsen as Dreamliners that have been rerouted to non-ETOPS flights are inspected.
About 70 percent of Dreamliners due to be delivered through early 2019 will sport a GE engine that’s not affected by the cracking issues, easing the pressure on Rolls, said Uresh Sheth, a widely followed blogger on Dreamliner production.