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KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - European air safety officials are preparing to extend checks for Airbus A380 wing cracks to the entire superjumbo fleet, sources close to the matter told Reuters on Wednesday.
The move to inspect all 68 A380s in service comes as Qantas Airways (QAN.AX) grounded one of its planes, saying engineers had found 36 wing cracks after the aircraft encountered severe turbulence.
By signaling that defects may be structural and widespread, the fleet-wide inspection order will refocus attention on flaws identified in flagship jets at both Airbus and Boeing (BA.N). The aircraft makers maintain that their newest jets remain safe to fly after problems were caught at an early stage.
"This is an extension of a process already underway," said one of the sources, who asked not to be named. "An effective repair has been identified."
Airbus, a unit of European Aeronautic Defence & Space Co. EAD.PA, declined to comment on the additional inspections. A spokesman for the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) was not immediately available.
The aviation watchdog last month ordered checks on one-third of the A380 fleet after cracks were found in a handful of the thousands of L-shaped brackets that fix each wing's exterior to the internal ribcage-like structure.
Inspectors had initially focused on 20 aircraft operated by Singapore Airlines (SIAL.SI), Air France (AIRF.PA) and Dubai's Emirates - which have logged the most A380 flights in the four years since the world's largest passenger plane entered service.
EASA has yet to set out a timetable for the new inspections, the sources said. Planes will be checked as they cross wear-and-tear thresholds at which the cracks become detectable.
Germany's Lufthansa (LHAG.DE), which has 8 A380 aircraft in operation, said its information, as yet unconfirmed, was that checks were being extended to make sure they took place before an A380 aircraft reaches 1,300 cycles of takeoff and landing.
The previous inspection ordered by EASA applied to aircraft that had already completed more than 1,300 flights.
"Our fleet is still young though, with our oldest A380 having completed around 900 cycles," spokesman Michael Lamberty said. "That means we have room to maneuver to carry out checks one by one as part of normal maintenance, without having to cancel any A380 flights."
Aircraft are designed with multiple safeguards to protect against the extreme stresses and temperature variations encountered during flight.
But premature glitches have recently embarrassed both Airbus and Boeing, which dominate the world jetliner market. The problems have raised fears of a consumer backlash of the kind that crippled Toyota (7203.T) when the Japanese car maker ordered millions of safety recalls in 2009-11.
While airlines have yet to report any fall in bookings related to the A380 cracks, several are monitoring the issue.
Boeing this week reported a manufacturing flaw on its 787 Dreamliner, the world's first commercial jet built mostly from composites, nine weeks after entry into service. Engineers found some delamination, or separation of baked composite fibers, in parts of the rear fuselage.
Jim Albaugh, the head of Boeing's commercial aircraft division, has said the problem would delay initial deliveries without undermining the company's full-year target.
Airbus has staked its future on the 12 billion euro ($16 billion) A380 program and is anxious to prevent publicity about the cracks denting confidence in its aircraft. With a list price of $390 million, the 525-seater is popular with passengers but has not sold as well as its designers expected.
The first barely visible A380 cracks surfaced during lengthy repairs to a Qantas jet whose wing was torn open by a mid-flight engine explosion in November 2010.
A second Qantas superjumbo was grounded after the discovery of two-centimeter (0.8 inch) cracks that were "traced back to a manufacturing issue," the Australian carrier said on Wednesday.
"These are not critical parts affecting safety any time soon," said Jean-Pierre Casamayou, editor-in-chief of Air et Cosmos, a French aerospace publication.
The Airbus and Boeing problems are nonetheless "worrying because it means neither manufacturer has been on top of everything," he said. "Both planes were two-to-three years late, and yet we're seeing these unusually early problems."
The wing cracks have overshadowed efforts by France-based Airbus to stabilize Europe's largest industrial project, which is not expected to turn a profit before 2015 after running significantly over-budget. The aircraft maker now faces an additional bill for wing checks and repairs, as well as compensation for customers' lost business.
Airbus and Boeing invested heavily in their newest models, which reflect a divergence of strategy over the $100 billion jetliner market. Boeing bet on lighter planes to save fuel and open new long-haul routes, while Airbus initially put its faith in larger jets to meet steep traffic growth.
Airbus later began developing the carbon-fiber A350 to compete with the hot-selling 787, while Boeing is also updating its 747 jumbo to challenge the A380. Airbus has said it aims to deliver 30 of the double-deckers this year.
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Reporting by Tim Hepher; additional reporting by Victoria Bryan in Frankfurt; writing by Laurence Frost; Editing by Geert De Clercq and Jane Merriman