Engine battles take flight

  • 03-Mar-2011 05:20 EST

A computer-generated image of the new Airbus A320neo in the colors of Indian low-cost airline Indigo. This new model features "sharklet" extended wing tips, which together with new generation high-efficiency engines, reduce fuel consumption by 15%. (Airbus/Fixion image)

Back in the summer of 2010, the international aerospace community was buzzing with speculation regarding whether Airbus or Boeing would act first in offering a new product that could give a competitive edge in the largest civil aerospace sector of all—the narrow-body 150-seat market.

With monthly production rates for both the A320 and 737 rising through 40 and still climbing, there is a lot at stake. Neither wants to risk any slackening in customer interest at a time when low-cost airlines are growing rapidly and older fleets require replacement. The continuing appeal of the 737 speaks for itself—last year the company delivered no fewer than 376 aircraft, while A320 sales now total over 6700 aircraft.

The question of how and when to move forward to protect their future market positions while not threatening the residual value of existing and ordered aircraft has been a huge dilemma for company management.

Engines, as usual, are the key, but in the next round of sales battles the “Big Two” no longer have the 150-seat market to themselves. New entrants include Bombardier’s C Series, China’s Comac C919, and from Russia, Irkut’s MC-21.

On Dec. 1, 2010, Airbus ended the suspense. It announced that it was to introduce a re-engined and aerodynamically enhanced A320, with the rather unexciting designation of A320neo (standing for New Engine Option). This variant offers the latest generation of fuel-saving, low-emissions, quiet turbofan engines and so-called “sharklet” upturned wingtips.

The two engine options for the A320neo are the CFM LEAP-X and the Pratt & Whitney Pure Power PW1000G, with entry into service aimed at spring 2016. Up to 15% fuel savings are being claimed, which represents up to 3600 t less CO2 annually per aircraft compared to the current A320. The enhanced performance will also deliver 2 t more payload, or a range increase of up to 500 nmi, in addition to double-digit NOx emissions reduction, substantially lower noise levels, and overall lower operating costs.

Airbus claims that the approaching availability of new engine technologies has enabled it to offer the A320neo as an alternative to today’s product for customers who will benefit from the more efficient performance. On Jan. 11, 2011, Airbus removed any remaining doubts on the A320neo when it announced that India’s largest low-cost airline, Indigo, had signed a memorandum of understanding for no fewer than 150 of the new variant, in addition to 30 “regular” A320s. So far, there is no decision on which of the rival new engines has been selected, though the airline has chosen the IAE V2500 engine for its standard A320s.

Boeing has entered 2011 keeping its next moves on the future of the 737 family under wraps. Fitting the new PW1000G may require more design change than fitting the LEAP-X because of limited ground clearance, but in any event a lengthened landing gear solution and a change to the wing engine pylons will be needed.

In view of the significant cost of further developing the 737 in this way, Boeing might be tempted to leap-frog Airbus by going straight for an all-new “game changer” 737 replacement with deliveries starting at the end of this decade. But this could bring extra risks.

First, it could hand Airbus a clean sweep of new orders for a 15% more efficient product in the short term. Second, it would set the datum line for an all-new aircraft, encouraging the prospect of a more radical A320 replacement for a market arrival around 2025—which many airlines might well consider to be a more acceptable timescale.

In January, Airbus President and CEO Tom Enders said the company is considering a flying open-rotor demonstrator. To achieve a realistic evaluation, a drastic redesign of the A320 airframe might be required, probably with rear-mounted engines positioned high up the fuselage, and with a new tail. This would not come cheap but could de-risk significantly the task of integrating an open rotor engine and a new airframe ahead of a later program launch.

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