Jets Are the Stars at the Paris Show, But Engine Talk Dominates

At the Paris Air Show, manufacturers and airlines returned to form after a four-year hiatus, with a flurry of orders that ran into the hundreds on the first two days.

(Bloomberg) — At the Paris Air Show, manufacturers and airlines returned to form after a four-year hiatus, with a flurry of orders that ran into the hundreds on the first two days.

Another long-held dynamic was also on display: the mutual dependence between airframe makers and engine suppliers, with the product strategy of one side inextricably linked to that of the other. 

Among the hot topics: an aircraft that doesn’t even yet exist, the stretched version of the Airbus SE A220. It’s a model that would expand Airbus’s smallest jet family to three versions, keeping with the rising popularity of longer aircraft that have more capacity. But while Airbus has said it’s keen to move ahead, engine supplier Pratt & Whitney isn’t so sure. 

Speaking in an exclusive interview at the Paris Air show, the chief executive officer of parent company Raytheon Technologies Corp., Greg Hayes, said building a new engine “for a relatively modest market does not make economic sense.” And while Airbus would like to see General Electric Co. consider a rival engine for the jet, Hayes said he’s skeptical they’ll bite. 

“Fortunately, GE has the same calculator we do,” Hayes said. “They can do math just as well as we do.”

Muted Entusiasm

Such resistance from a crucial aircraft supplier won’t make it any easier for Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury to chart a path forward for the A220, a program he inherited when Bombardier Corp. put its ailing C-Series program up for sale. 

Faury, for his part, said “it makes a lot more sense to have one more child in the family.” But Hayes’ lack of enthusiasm and persistent durability issues with existing A220 power plants suggest it’s an offspring that won’t see the light of day anytime soon. 

Airbus and Boeing Co. have relied on seamless collaboration with engine makers in the past to push their products. When Airbus put new, more fuel-efficient engines on its A320 model a decade ago, the so-called neo version became an instant hit and forced Boeing to follow suit. 

But the Pratt & Whitney engines powering the Airbus A320neo as well as the A220 have grappled with durability issues. Airbus is also busy lifting output on its A320 family aircraft to meet surging demand. Just on the first day of the air show, it secured an order from Indian carrier IndiGo for 500 jets. While those won’t be delivered before 2030, Airbus will need to raise output on its most successful product to a level never reached before, even as supply-chain constraints persist. 

More of the Same

“At this point we’re not encouraging it,” Steve Udvar-Hazy, the influential chairman of aircraft leasing firm Air Lease Corp., said of Airbus’s deliberations on a stretched A220. “Airbus have their hands full right now with production, they have a pretty full book of aircraft they’ve got to produce. It’s something they’re looking at but not top of the list.”

Engines pose one of the most complicated quandaries for planemakers as they consider expanding their jet families. For the A220 to be a potent competitive threat to Boeing, Airbus will need a costly new engine — or face compromises that will hurt sales, said Hayes. 

The current Pratt & Whitney engine powering the A220 is maxed out at 24,000 pounds of thrust, while the version built for the A320neo is too large. If Airbus wanted to bring a stretched A220 to market quickly and inexpensively, “you have to take the same engine and accept that you can’t climb as fast, or take penalty on range,” Hayes said.

“Airbus has to decide: do they really need this, or is it better to just make more A320s?” he said.

–With assistance from Siddharth Philip and Kate Duffy.

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