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Ryan Beene

Airlines Are Rankled About Pratt & Whitney’s Jet Engine Problems

A dozen years ago, Airbus SE stormed the Paris Air Show with the A320neo, a single-aisle jet boasting improved fuel economy and less noise. A key part of the sales pitch was the choice of competing engines from Pratt & Whitney and CFM International made with advanced coatings and composites, giving the planes a faster cruising speed with lower emissions. Airbus walked away from Paris with fistfuls of orders, and the A320neo soon became the fastest-selling airliner in history.

As the aviation industry gathers again on June 19 outside the French capital, the fuel-sipping turbines are back in focus—but for the wrong reasons. Durability issues and overtaxed engine repair shops have forced carriers to park many of their newest jets, sometimes for months. Although the engines have delivered on their promised fuel efficiency and generally perform better than earlier models, the manufacturers acknowledge that they haven’t been as robust as envisioned.

While the challenges have weighed on CFM, Pratt’s record is worse. Its engines “have suffered from a multitude of defects and a high rate of failure effectively from day one,” India’s Go Airlines said in a statement, blaming the technology for its slide into bankruptcy in May. Pratt says it’s not responsible for the carrier’s financial condition and insists that overall durability is in line with or better than previous versions. “We are seeing extremely strong demand,” says Shane Eddy, the company’s president.

In May about one in eight A320neos and related aircraft equipped with Pratt’s geared turbofan, or GTF, had been in storage for 30 days or more, according to researcher Cirium. The tally—which includes planes taken out of service for any reason, not just engine issues—compares with 4% for those with the rival Leap engine from CFM, a partnership of General Electric Co. and Safran SA. At the same time, scores of other GTF-powered narrowbodies were also grounded: about 17% of the smaller Airbus A220, and 11% of Embraer SA E2 regional jets.

Pratt spent $10 billion developing the GTF, which uses a gearbox to allow the fan to spin more slowly than its fuel-burning turbine. Airbus says that boosts efficiency by about 20%, but airlines make purchasing decisions on multiple factors such as operating costs, durability and reliability. And as some GTF components wear out faster than anticipated, airlines have been forced to repair them sooner than planned. A post-Covid-19 shortage of mechanics has further slowed the planes’ return to the skies.

At this year’s Paris show, Pratt’s parent company, Raytheon Technologies Corp., is set to host an investor day, where executives will surely be quizzed on the problems. While CFM appears to have a handle on the issues facing the Leap, the troubles with the GTF are on the rise, according to Bernstein analyst Douglas Harned. “Leap durability is materially better,” Harned wrote in a May research note, suggesting that the model “may be the A320 engine choice for those not already committed.”

On June 14, the pressure increased as Guillaume Faury, CEO of Airbus, said he would like to offer airlines a choice of engines for an expanded lineup of the A220, which today only comes with Pratt’s turbine. While the GTF is reliable, Faury said in an interview with Aviation Week, “the engine is not durable.”

A growing share of sales of both aircraft and engines will likely come from fast-growing markets such as China, India and the Middle East, according to Bloomberg Intelligence analyst George Ferguson. And the dust, heat and pollution in those locations, he says, have amplified the latest engines’ durability shortfalls. “You want to be ready to grow market share in those regions, and without a total fix right now, it makes it hard,” Ferguson says.

The situation sets up the Paris show as a test of whether Pratt’s woes will push more airlines to opt for the Leap. The GTF is now on 46% of the roughly 2,800 A320neos that have been delivered. Of the 6,000 or so on order, airlines have chosen the Leap for 37% versus 24% for the GTF, according to Cirium. That leaves some 2,300 jets still up for grabs, and more orders are likely to be announced in Paris, so Pratt can still reach parity over time, says Cirium consultant George Dimitroff. With a reengineered version dubbed the GTF Advantage that Pratt says incorporates multiple durability upgrades set to go on sale next year, he says, many airlines are waiting for more data. “They are likely to take their time,” Dimitroff says, “and observe the reliability and performance of both CFM and Pratt engines as they mature before making a decision.” —With Anurag Kotoky

Read next: China’s Plane Shortage Is Good News for Boeing

©2023 Bloomberg L.P.

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