SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Australia's Qantas (QAN.AX) took its repaired A380 superjumbo back to the skies on Saturday, resuming a 3,900 mile journey dramatically interrupted 18 months ago when one of its engines blew up over Indonesia.
After $140 million of repairs, the world's largest jetliner took off for Sydney shortly before midnight, carrying Qantas Chief Executive Alan Joyce and members of the crew that safely landed the crippled Airbus in Singapore with 440 passengers on board.
"She's running a little late... 18 months," Joyce earlier told reporters under the left wing of the big jet, which was sprayed by shrapnel as the engine blew apart shortly after take-off from Singapore in November 2010.
The return to service of the flagship European jetliner ends a harrowing episode for the airline, planemaker Airbus EAD.PA and engine supplier Rolls-Royce (RR.L).
Investigators have blamed the incident on a potential manufacturing flaw at Britain's Rolls-Royce, which endured blunt criticism from Joyce following the Trent 900 engine explosion.
Qantas and Airbus said the aircraft is safe and nearly as good as new after going through what they described as the biggest repair job on a single aircraft in aviation history.
The only visible scars are two patches of metal under the left wing where it was pierced by debris, some of which shot out at an angle that narrowly missed the top of the fuselage.
"We believe this aircraft is as good as new. In the test flight that has taken place it is performing better than a new aircraft would," Joyce said.
The engine blowout initially prompted the grounding of the entire Qantas A380 fleet -- six A380s at the time -- for over three weeks.
The aircraft has undergone extensive repairs involving 70,000 hours of work in a hangar belonging to Singapore Airlines (SIAL.SI) at Changi Airport in Singapore.
With each aircraft costing almost $400 million at today's list prices, the insurance-paid repair bill of A$139 million ($143 million) was cheaper than writing off the damaged jet.
The plane, named after Australian aviation pioneer Nancy Bird-Walton, began the 6-1/2 hour journey home as flight QF32, the same call sign it was using at the time of the incident.
Qantas will stop using that call sign after Saturday's homecoming flight.
"It is very important that everybody was here to fulfill the last flight that was not completed 18 months ago," Joyce said.
Passengers on the journey home included Richard De Crespigny, the captain on the troubled flight 18 months ago.
"I have absolute complete confidence in the aircraft. I am very pleased that my CEO is coming back on the flight tonight and I look forward to having my wife and two children also here on the A380 as soon as possible," De Crespigny told reporters.
Editing by Tim Hepher and Geert de Clercq