At the Paris show there were a seeming unending flow of words via PR releases that battled for media attention. Given the retail price of the equipment on sale, the stakes were high. But not necessarily as high as some of the egos. But that’s another story. If there is one series of PR that deserves its own chapter, this would be releases from CFM and Pratt & Whitney.
On the one hand you have the CFM story – source of the benchmark, reliable engine, the CFM56. It has been around for a long time and CFM keeps making it better. It is the sole engine on the 737 and can arguably be pointed to as one of the primary reasons so many LCCs like the 737. The engine fires up after landing within 30 minutes, does a segment, lands and then 30 minutes later it does it all over again. This engine has now reached levels of reliability that could see an original engine stay on the same wing for 20 years. Such a performance is simply outstanding and the reason why so many A320 family operators also select the CFM56. The key sales point for CFM is reliability – which essentially means predictable schedules. For a short hop operator (typically an LCC) this is probably issue #1. It is more important than fuel burn. With a reliable engine and airplane combination, airlines can reduce spare engines and airplanes. For a good technical background on what CFM has to accomplish with its new LEAP to stay within CFM56 performance, check out this link to AeroTurboPower.
On the other hand we have a new offering from Pratt & Whitney in its PurePower (GTF). The design is elegant. The engineering is clever and even a non-engineer can appreciate the smart approach. With substantially fewer parts, the engine promises lower MRO costs. It should be four times quieter than current engines (hint CFM56) and because the engine’s two main parts run at speeds optimal to those sections, it should be very fuel efficient. Tests undertaken to date demonstrate the idea works. The tests are not just internal at P&W. Airbus ran its own tests and the other OEMs performed their own evaluations. To crown it all, Lufthansa always undertakes its own analysis and went on to buy the engine. Note that in doing so, it elected to power its A320neo with the P&W engine while its current A320s use the CFM56. Everyone qualified to discuss the engine, that we have spoken with about this engine, is convinced it is a huge leap (sorry) forward.
Indeed, P&W’s engine quickly attracted attention. Bombardier, IRKUT, Mitsubishi and then Airbus selected the engine for their programs. There can be little doubt that this success must have influenced CFM to take a fresh look at its CFM56. The response was the LEAP-X. Lately the X has been dropped from the name.
This past week’s orders at Paris saw the CFM engine move from way behind the GTF to essentially parity in terms of orders. Does this mean its the better engine? Not necessarily. In private conversations with both OEMs, both admit the two engines are going to be a huge improvement on current engines. The only firm publicly doubting this is Rolls-Royce, which has been negative on the GTF. Rolls-Royce partners with P&W on the IAE V2500 engine which competes with the CFM56. Rolls-Royce chose not to partner on the GTF. Partnerships are a tad complicated; Rolls and P&W partner on the V2500 while P&W and GE partner on the GP7200. Meanwhile CFM is a partnership between GE and SNECMA. Although these projects are fire walled from each other, one has to assume that ideas leak. After all, engineers love to talk about the technology. Visit with one to see what I mean. But for a protective PR person listening, its easy to get an engineer fired up and animatedly discussing approaches to solving heat, thrust, fuel burn, and noise. Turbofans are thrust machines and they work in very defined ways. So being clever with things like gears and ceramics is something tough to keep quiet about.
The only thing CFM and P&W seem to agree on is that both new engines will raise the bar over both the IAE V2500 and CFM56.
But the war of words is hot. CFM is crowing about its huge order book at the end of this week. And it is impressive. But take a closer look and you will see that it is really existing customers who are splurging on updated A320s. In questioning CFM officials, we were assured the company is not buying this business. Yet comments by the airlines with big orders allude to creative and attractive deals. CFM officials point out that their toughest sales are to leasing firms – and with rueful smiles, they hint that GECAS may be the toughest because it is “family”.
Let’s look at some data points:
- P&W point to the fact that Virgin America’s David Cush seemed to hint their engine was a tad more efficient but CFM made the compelling financial offer. Note also that midway through the Virgin America campaign CFM offered a new engine with an extra stage and larger fan – sure they had to have been working on this idea for a while. But still the timing is worth noting. CFM says they went to a bigger fan because Airbus realized limiting CFM to a smaller fan while allowing the bigger GTF fan was silly.
- Note that CFM “lost” Lufthansa as a customer when it selected the GTF for its neo order. Lufthansa is a customer you give what they want because they are so influential. What you lose on Lufthansa you make up somewhere else.
- Then there was a statement by CFM’s Sandrine Lacorre, product marketing director, who said “What we can’t do technically , we will do commercially.” This quote is rather illuminating and was addressing a question at a recent UBM Aviation Engine Leasing conference. The question pertained to customers saving on purchase costs if MRO costs on LEAP were higher than on the CFM56. Make of that what you will, but it seems to signal that CFM is willing or able or both to be creative to hold on to its market share. Given the size of it, who can blame them?
- In addition Republic’s spokesman earlier this week also used language indicating GECAS was able to make a compelling offer to ensure they went with CFM engines on the neo order. While CFM may be competing vigorously with P&W for every sale, there is a wrinkle called GECAS. For years now GECAS has been referred to as the “banker of last resort” for the airline industry. GECAS will not finance an airplane without a GE or GE-related engine. For CFM this is a really useful friend.
So who is the fairest of them all? CFM offers a compelling story based on decades of rock solid CFM56 performance. Its next offering called LEAP takes from the GE90 and GEnx and CFM rightly points to a fabulous record of delivering on their performance target every time. Its a tough act to beat. If you’re an airline executive who wants to avoid risk and uncertainty this is a siren song that is irresistible. On the other side you have P&W offering something that promises superb fuel burn improvement, lower noise, lower costs – its just better in every way. This is also a siren song that is tough to resist.
What do we know about these engines? The GTF is supposed to run much cooler. CFM says the LEAP will be as cool. But how do you have hotter gas (to get the same low fuel burn as GTF) – do you run more cool air over the metal so it does not burn? CFM says it will use ceramic coatings that have no MRO requirements. If there is cooler air added the efficiency drops and if you use ceramic you are entering something of a new world. Which means risk. Probably easily as much as any risk using a gear.
If you find this confusing (how can both be right?) then you are in good company. We understand that every trade journalist who has listened to both sides has come away uncertain. It is a war of words. Both sides have excellent reputations and stories to tell. Both sides are world class engineers – without a doubt the smartest in the field. GE’s engineers produce superb engines. P&W powers anything that flies – it has produced an engine that recently went over Mach 5 and they have a aerospace heritage second to none. Both firms are simply brilliant at what they do.
Our take is that the aircraft makers are about to be offered the finest engines, ever. Airlines are likely to see performance yardsticks they have only dreamed about. They can expect the best fuel burn, lowest noise and emissions and amazing time on wing numbers. And because these two firms keep pushing, expect the numbers to creep. P&W can tweak its gear ratio to achieve 25% better fuel burn than current engines with low noise and emissions. CFM will likely add more ceramics to enable it to take current turbofan design to the nth degree.
Elegant, surely. What’s not to like about “more for less”? But the entire issue here, in a nutshell, is “will these light, high power gearboxes be as reliable, durable and low TCO as claimed?” Only time will tell.
Another testimonial to the virtues of competition!
Seriously, I’m just delighted that both these companies seem to be firing on all cylinders–especially Pratt. I suspect that there is great technical merit to both presentations. Ironically, the greatest challenge to each may not be the competition, but meeting demand–especially if the airframe OEM’s declared intent to ramp up production on their new (declared and planned) models becomes reality.
I still think, the GTF has a higher risk- gears while providing the benefits , in my view, is not as simple as the Leap/conventional turbofan. This is also a philosophical issue; a clear trade off between lower temps/ slower speed of rotation and higher efficiency of GTF vs some additional complexity -ie gears , however reliable they could be.
With all the imporvement in material science, a geared engine , is still on paper is riskier than the non geared one.
While kudos to P&W , let us not get carried away on the challenges of reliability and maintenance.