A Bad Case of Jet Lag

(Bloomberg) -- They were the planes that promised a new era of profitable flying for airlines. Instead, a series of engine glitches has left much of the aviation industry with a severe case of jet lag.

The revamped Airbus A320neo narrow-body and Boeing’s rival 737 Max, together with the U.S. company’s bigger 787 Dreamliner, came with the enticement of drastically reduced fuel burn, the biggest single cost for carriers.

While the three models have largely made good on that pledge, the achievement has been undermined as the turbine faults result in a seemingly never-ending stream of safety warnings and aircraft groundings. That’s led to billions of dollars in extra costs for engine makers Rolls-Royce, Pratt & Whitney and CFM International, canceled flights and older planes for passengers, and misery for Airbus and Boeing as they store aircraft and lose revenue when they should be reaping the benefits of record production.

Together, the afflicted models have drawn orders worth $1.37 trillion at list prices. While that figure is set to grow next week when manufacturers meet their biggest customers at the Farnborough International air show near London, there will likely be some difficult conversations. 

No single factor explains the run of errors, though most concern unexpectedly high levels of wear that have required parts to be replaced far earlier than planned. One explanation may be that the engine specialists have overreached the bounds of current technology in seeking to deliver the savings demanded by Airbus and Boeing.

Pratt & Whitney’s geared turbofan, used on the A320neo, is a radical design featuring a gearbox that allows the fan at the front to spin at different speeds to the compressor-turbine assembly behind, boosting power and efficiency. Faults have ranged from uneven cooling issues afflicting the first planes due to be delivered to Qatar Airways through problems with so-called knife-edge seals that led to mid-flight shutdowns in India.

The Leap from the CFM venture of General Electric and France’s Safran is a modernized version of an engine that’s been successfully powering single-aisle planes for decades. Yet it too has encountered a less-severe set of problems on both the A320neo and 737 Max as stresses in the supply chain have impacted the quality of some parts and put deliveries weeks behind schedule.

Rolls-Royce’s Trent 1000 was designed for a smaller plane than the 787 that eventually came to be, and is being succeeded by a new variant better able to meet the demands of the larger aircraft. The model has been plagued by cracks to fan blades and other components, grounding dozens of aircraft for fixes, restricting flights over water and costing Rolls more than half a billion pounds in repair expenses and lost cash.

The impact of the turbine glitches has been felt throughout aviation, with the A320neo family and 737 Max series serving as industry workhorses on short-haul flights and ordered in their thousands by airlines from every continent. The 787 has been similarly popular, with the lineup of Dreamliner customers reading like a roll call of the world’s most prestigious carriers.

Airlines have resorted to drastic measures to keep passengers on the move while their planes have been grounded.

Virgin Atlantic Airways, one of the biggest 787 operators, shelled out on buying four Airbus A330 jets that previously flew for bankrupt Air Berlin, and recalled a thirsty four-engine A340 that had been retired to ease fuel costs. Passengers also may notice the difference; the A330s were built more than 17 years ago on average and the A340 is 12 years old, compared with an average age of just 2.4 years for the carrier’s Dreamliners.

 

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