Visiting EAA’s AirVenture gathering in Oshkosh, Wisconsin is both a treat and an amazing experience. Especially doing so after having just been to Farnborough. The contrast is tremendous. At Farnborough the place is full of professional avgeeks. Aviation is something that people outside the industry cannot understand. People inside the industry have a passion about the business. At EAA that passion reaches a new level. There only a few professional avgeeks, here the majority are not professional and many fly their own aircraft to the event. People camp under the wings of their planes. People seem to camp everywhere and anywhere they find space. This may be the Woodstock of aviation.
At the show this year there are the usual OEMs showing off their aircraft. Pilatus had their line, Textron had the piston and turboprop aircraft, EPIC had their sleek turboprop, Piper also had piston and turboprops, Daher showed off their aircraft. Cirrus has their piston and jet. Embraer had their gleaming Phenoms. The main road was not unlike the road Americans see when they want to buy a car. Dealerships on either side of the road. The choice is wide and fits any budget, provided that budget starts at about $1m.
What is most interesting to see at the show is that if an aircraft is turboprop powered, there is a 90%+ chance it uses a PT-6. Which must be the reason that GE is making such a big effort with its new ATP. What aero-engine market share has ever matched this?
GE has met with success at Textron. Textron unveiled their new Denali cabin mock-up. The Denali will be GE powered. The Denali is 3 inches wider than the Pilatus PC-12. The front of the two aircraft also look different because of the engines. But from a distance it might be hard to tell. The Denali is as close as one can get to copying the PC-12 layout. More importantly, Textron decided to call this new aircraft a Cessna, not a Beechcraft. When asked about this, an official coyly said “we made a choice”. The new Denali appears to be a single engine aircraft that can do anything the Beechcraft King Air can. But it is a single and the Beechcraft is a twin. The dust has yet to settle on this and will be interesting to watch.
The selection of GE is big news and Textron made a fuss of it. The Pratt & Whitney Canada PT-6 has been around for decades. Steadily improved and tweaked in line with market demand and requirements. The amount of effort GE is putting into the ATP signals something big is happening in turboprop engines.
GE has developed the ATP using technology from its leading edge big aero engines. The three key parts of the ATP mirror the technologies found in the GE90 and GEnx. As a consequence, GE touted performance for their new engine as 20% better fuel efficiency and better power ratings across the altitude range. The case must have been compelling for Textron to switch from the PT-6, which powers all their other turboprop aircraft.
After the Textron announcement, we took a walk by the key PT-6 powered OEMs. The reactions were consistent. All appreciate that GE is bringing competition to the market. Pilatus was more bemused by the apparent copying of their PC-12. Piper is pleased because the ATP means options going forward on new designs, and also that GE is bringing aggressive pricing to play. Daher echoed this view as well. Only EPIC said they had no intention of using anything other than the PT-6. Indeed, none of the OEMs we spoke with are considering switching to the ATP on current programs. Piper noted any such switch would actually add to their costs.
So how disruptive can GE be in the market? In a word, very. The ATP is not GE’s first turboprop engine. The company has its CT-7 power the SAAB 340. It’s H-series is on crop-dusters. It’s massive GE38 powers the new Sikorsky CH53K. But GE has not aimed its resources directly on the PT-6 before. With the ATP, the fight is on.
Speaking on the sidelines with GE program managers, they were refreshingly candid. They know the competitor has 90% market share. They realize that to break that grip on the market they need to be much more flexible, much more innovative and ensure their ATP exploits everything the GE mothership can bring to bear. Their key focus now is to deliver an engine on time and on spec. They are focused on doing exactly what we heard from the aircraft OEMs. Which is essentially that the PT-6 is the most reliable and safest engine they can use, plus it is backed up by a global network of excellent support.
The hill for GE to climb is steep. But this is GE, and if anyone can do this, GE can.
What looks like the outcome? Almost certainly P&WC will see its 90% market share decline. GE will deploy its compelling resources and make deals. GE has a superb reputation for its financial capabilities and we expect that to be in full use on the ATP.
But GE has to also acquire hours and reputation for the things that make the PT-6 what it is. That won’t happen quickly. P&WC is going to react as you can see below.
For the market this new race is great news. The OEMs will be able to trade off the engine makers on new designs. This means buyers of turboprop aircraft are set for a future with much better pricing. In addition, the market is likely to see a sharp increase in high end technology deployment. For example, GE will have Big Data capabilities built into the ATP – so we expect P&WC to offer that too. GE is offering a “one handle” engine system – which is cute except that the Pilatus, Daher and others all have this too with the PT-6. But GE’s technology in making the one handle do better engine management must be responded to. And we have no doubt P&WC will do this in short order.
This year’s EAA spotlights the future where the turboprop market is headed for much more interesting times. GE and Pratt & Whitney are about to embark on an ongoing competition which is great for the industry. As one GE manager noted, competition is good for both firms. He is 100% correct.