The A320neo (new engine option) is Airbus’s update of its popular A320 narrowbody jet, used for medium and short-haul flights by carriers across the globe. Aerodynamic improvements featuring a sharklet that slashes block fuel burn by up to 4%, an updated cabin interior, are key selling points of this modernisation programme. In a nutshell, the A320neo has indeed changed the dynamics of the narrowbody marketplace and tilted it in its favour, from an evenly split duopoly.
Airbus pitches its new A320neo family’s block fuel burn per seat saving of 15% compared to an A320ceo (current engine option), in addition to 510nm (nautical miles) additional range, reduced engine noise and lower emissions.
One of the key advantages that the A320neo offers is a choice of two engines, the PW1100G-JM PurePower engine by United Technologies Corporation’s Pratt & Whitney and the Leap-1A by CFM International, a joint venture between General Electric (GE) and Safran SA, with two decidedly different engine architectures.
The value of an engine choice, not least for Airbus, is proven by the technical glitch suffered by the Pratt & Whitney engine whose ground test, preceding the resumption of flight test, is likely to be pushed back to the end of July. This comes after a P&W engine seal-retaining component failed at high temperature during testing, which led to a suspension of flight testing since early May. United Technologies’ Pratt plans to deliver 2 revised engines with the seal issue addressed to Airbus by the end of the month. Didier Evrard, head of programmes at Airbus was quoted as saying that he expects test flights to resume by the end of July.
This latest setback comes hot on the heels of another incident involving the Pratt engines. Back in April, released images showed fire emitting from the core exhaust of the right hand engine. This was apparently caused by a bird strike during a climb-out. Airbus had since given a statement that said the incident would not impact the timing of the overall certification programme, nor would it delay projected customer delivery for this year-end.
On the other hand, CFM International’s Leap-1A turbofan, the only other engine choice for the A320neo family, plans to wrap up certification testing “within the coming weeks”. As of press time, the CFM engines have completed more than half the required tests, with most of the more critical ones out of the way. For example, earlier last month, the block triple redline test, where the engine is run at maximum fan speed, maximum core speed and maximum exhaust gas temperature (EGT), was completed successfully. CFM’s executive vice-president (EVP) Allen Paxson was quoted as saying, “We’ll be wrapping up testing in the next few weeks. We’re right on plan, but that’s not to say there have not been any bumps.”
Having said that, this is in spite of the fact that the CFM Leap-1A-powered flying testbed having not flown for close to 2 weeks now at press time, with an engine change having been made that may reflect a build considerably closer to the production standard.
However, in terms of engine’s fuel burn performance, Aspire Aviation firstly reported that the CFM Leap-1A engine is falling behind its original specific fuel consumption (SFC) target by 2% and that its sibling, the 69.4-inch Leap-1B exclusively powering the 737 MAX, is similarly witnessing a SFC shortfall of around 4-5% (“Boeing NSA/MOM launch timing hinges on 737 MAX progress“, 19th Mar, 15). Several explanations have since emerged, including that the engine suffering from the reported fuel burn shortfall is a “corner engine” built to loose standards at the boundaries of testing parameters. Yet this still fails to fully account for the entirety of the purported shortfall, as tightening build standards and bringing it closer to production configuration is believed to be only able to narrow the shortfall by some 1-2%. Further factoring in the fact that the 737 MAX will not meet its promised 14% block fuel burn target until 2020 (“Tackling 787 cash burden will unlock Boeing’s earnings potential“, 29th Apr, 15), it is clear that the A320neo enjoys a hedge between the two engines its transatlantic counterpart does not.
So far, some 34% of the A320neo customers that have made an engine choice opted for the Leap-1A, versus the 29% share held by the PW1100G-JM, although the remainder could easily tilt the balance one way or the other.
The Toulouse-based plane-maker currently has 3,866 firm orders for the new A320neo family as of June 2015, the fastest-selling aircraft in history. Airbus plans to aggressively ramp up production of the aircraft, to meet anticipated strong demand from airlines and leasing companies. Therefore, it has very little buffer for delays.
In light of the hiccup caused by the Pratt engines, Airbus has shifted some test flights to a CFM Leap-1A powered test plane. Original delivery plan to customer for the CFM-powered A320neo is for early next year. As for the P&W-powered airplanes, they would need to undergo 2-3 months flight trials once testing resumes. However, even with this interruption, Airbus currently still forecasts it is on track to deliver the first P&W-powered A320neo to customers by the end of the year. Three customers are lined up to receive the Pratt-powered A320neo this year. The first being Qatar Airways, whose chief executive, Akbar Al-Baker, is notoriously intolerant of delayed deliveries.
The Airbus A320neo commences a new chapter in the Airbus/Boeing rivalry. Boeing launched the 737 in 1968 and built up a solid customer following, before Airbus joined the party 16 years later, launching the A320 programme in 1984. The rivalry between Airbus and Boeing remain as strong as ever. It is in fact rather difficult to decide which of their latest offering is the better of the two. This time round, Airbus launched the A320neo in December 2010, with Boeing playing catch-up by launching the 737 MAX the following August. So far, Airbus is the undisputed market winner, with 58% of firm orders against Boeing’s 42%.
“I think the industry has clearly spoken. Whereas on the NG/A320, I’ll give Boeing the credit for a 50/50 split, but we’ve so much more [features and efficiencies] for the neo we’ve opened up a gap,” Airbus chief operating officer (COO) customers John Leahy said at the Innovation Days 2015.
At the International Society of Transport Aircraft Trader (ISTAT) European conference last October, a poll was taken of the 1,000 plus delegates asking them whether Airbus or Boeing manufactured the more competitive single-aisle airplane. Half voted for Airbus; with just 23% voting for Boeing.
This is not to say that the 737 MAX is not a good airplane, with a respectable tally of 2,831 firm orders as of end-June. What worries industry analysts the most, other than the reason why Boeing has so far not lived up to its assertion that it will catch up with the sales of the A320neo since the 737 MAX launch almost 4 years ago, is that the 737 MAX family will be reduced to a single platform in the 162-seat MAX 8, its MAX 200 variant and a rumoured long-range -8ERX in response to the A321LR. The MAX 9’s tally of 286 firm orders has been outsold by the A321neo’s 826 by a factor 3:1, let alone Airbus won the hotly-contested Wizz Air campaign with a memorandum of understanding (MoU) for 110 A321neos, with deliveries beginning in 2019.
“There is no ‘sweet spot’ as our competitor says. There are ‘sweet spots’ on the A320neo, spot on A321neo,” Leahy contended.
Another concern surrounding the 737 MAX is its future upgrade path. Unlike Airbus’s upcoming 2% technology insertion package on the PW1100G-JM engine from 2019 onwards that builds upon the PurePower engine’s 0.5-0.6% SFC beat, any insertion on the Boeing aircraft would be used to overcome initial performance shortfalls.
Hence it would seem that, Boeing’s reign of the single-aisle sector may finally have come to an end.
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