Gearing up for a fight

The business of propelling large passenger jets is at maximum thrust. Boeing and Airbus delivered a record 1,300 planes between them last year. They also racked up 2,800 new orders to bring their combined backlog to well over 10,000. The engines account for up to a third of the value of a new jet. So some pundits reckon engine-makers’ revenues could total $1 trillion over the next 20 years.
Pratt & Whitney used to tower over the market for such engines but these days it is third-placed in a business dominated by GE, another American company, and Rolls-Royce, of Britain. Pratt is now hoping to claw its way back to the top with its new generation of jet engine, the “geared turbofan”. This has a gearbox that lets the fan at the front of the engine turn at a different speed to the compressors inside it. By allowing each to run at optimal speeds it makes the engine more efficient.
Pratt’s new engine is one of the options airlines can choose when ordering Airbus’s revamped version of its A320 “narrowbody” jet, used for short- to medium-haul routes. It is the only choice on the CSeries, a jet whose Canadian maker, Bombardier, is seeking to bust a duopoly between Airbus and Boeing for narrowbodies. But the CSeries’s entry into service was this month put back until perhaps 2015, two years later than first planned.
Understanding the aero-engine business is made harder by the fact that as they compete ferociously in one part of the market, manufacturers work together in joint ventures in other parts. In all, about 70% of the world’s jetliner engines are made either by GE alone or by CFM International, GE’s joint venture with Snecma of France. CFM supplies all the engines for Boeing’s 737, its rival to the A320. Buyers of A320s can currently choose between a CFM engine or one from International Aero Engines (IAE), a consortium including Pratt and Japanese and German firms. For bigger “widebody” jets, Rolls and GE are the main contenders.
Rivalry was more intense in the past. But the cost of developing a new engine, at around $1 billion, resulted in today’s odd mix of competition and collaboration. Airlines prefer competition, to keep costs down, but there are some advantages to doing without it. It means the plane and engine are made for each other, optimising their performance. An engine-maker guaranteed exclusivity may contribute towards the development costs of a new plane, cutting the risks borne by the planemakers.
Pratt has got by for years on its military-jet engines, its slice of IAE and by milking its installed base of older civil-aircraft engines, which need lots of maintenance and spare parts. But from 2016, when the first revamped A320 is scheduled for delivery, its new geared turbofan engines, which it will make all by itself, will go head-to-head against CFM’s LEAP. This is a more conventional engine design, but uses sophisticated composite materials to achieve the same fuel-efficiency savings, of around 15%, that airlines are demanding.
Pratt may eventually produce versions of its geared turbofan for wide-bodied jets, where profits are fatter. Rolls, having given up on the narrowbodied market, plans to return when Boeing and Airbus replace their 737s and A320s with entirely new models—but that is a decade or more away. Chinese and Russian firms want to enter the fray, though that may take even longer.
In the meantime, Rob Morris of Ascend, an aviation consultancy, notes that the tendency towards having just one engine option per plane is growing. For example, Rolls is the only engine supplier for Airbus’s new long-haul plane, the A350, which had its first test flight last year. GE declined to offer an engine because some variants of the A350 are in direct competition with Boeing’s 777, on which GE already supplies all the engines. Rolls and GE at least both offer engines for Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner, which will compete with other variants of the A350.
So a return to vigorous competition among three or more engine-makers is far from guaranteed. Indeed, Zafar Khan of Société Générale, a bank, suggests that since Rolls is relatively small and Pratt is part of a deep-pocketed conglomerate, United Technologies, Pratt might contemplate bidding for Rolls to ensure its return to the widebodied market. That would require the agreement of the British government, which has a “golden share” in Rolls. But if such a deal also ensured Rolls’s long-term future, that might not be impossible.

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