Last week’s announced recall of in-service Pratt & Whitney’s Geared Turbofan (GTF) engines is likely to have yet another impact for commercial aircraft industry supply chain efforts to ramp-up monthly production.
Last week, aircraft engine supplier Pratt & Whitney indicated that upwards of 1,200 in-service engines will have to be inspected after the discovery of evidence of contamination in some of the metal used in the production of certain engine parts. Reportedly, the metal contamination can lead to cracks within engine parts and the issue requires that engines be internally inspected to assess if repairs are required, and to what extent. According to business and industry media reports, the engine recall will affect upwards of 1,200 engines produced between 2015 and 2021.
Pratt has laid out a plan to initially inspect 137 engines that have logged the most operating hours, which is expected to take several weeks. That will be followed by inspections of the remaining 1,063 engines which are expected to take months to complete.
Upwards of 40 percent of Airbus A320 neo family of aircraft are powered by the Pratt GTF engine with the remainder of the operating fleet powered by CFM International LEAP engines. Both Airbus and Pratt have indicated that the engine issue does not pose an immediate safety issue for the aircraft and is working with customers to help minimize any disruption to global-wide airline fleets.
Since its introduction in 2016, the innovative Pratt GTF has been dogged by a series of reliability and manufacturing quality issues.
Initially, problems centered on metal composition of the engines, complex turbo fans. Other issues relate to the design of the combustion chamber along with oil leaks and vibration issues, particularly for engines operating in hot and arid climates such as the Middle East and India. According to reporting from The Wall Street Journal last week, more than 100 Pratt powered jets have been grounded “by durability issues or spare parts shortages that have dragged on for years.”
Potential Impacts to New Aircraft Production Volume Ramp-Up
As Supply Chain Matters has highlighted for readers in a number of prior commercial aircraft industry supply network postings, both Boeing and Airbus have been under the looking glass to meet plans for ramping-up monthly new aircraft deliveries amid airline order backlogs that extend for years. In the specific case of the Airbus A320 neo narrow aisle family, backlogs now extend to the year 2030.
In conjunction with reporting of 2023 first-half financial and operating performance, Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury reiterated the aircraft maker’s existing plans to produce 720 commercial aircraft this year. However, he noted that the company was assessing the impact the Pratt engine recall would have on aircraft deliveries over the next two years.
The issue is a familiar one for the industry.
When operational engines are taken out of service for inspections or extensive repairs, the engine manufacturer needs to increase the pool of available engines as available spares to avoid airline operating schedules from being impacted by aircraft grounding or availability. That situation already exists for some airlines with Pratt GTF engines in their abilities to maintain existing summer travel schedule needs. Industry media points to airline executives that are rather upset by both the Pratt reliability issues as well as the need for now inspecting and assessing such a large number of engines. CEO Faury acknowledged such a frustration last week.
Last week Airbus again reiterated for investors the targeting of A320 family production levels of 50 per month by 2026. With the availability of both aircraft engine producers to meet existing monthly production schedules continuing to be a challenge, the latest developments related to the Pratt engine are now the concern of industry equity analysts and this industry’s collective supply networks. While order backlogs remain extensive, airlines do not pay for their new aircraft until delivery and acceptance are accomplished.
Once again, the weakest link in commercial aircraft supply networks remains one of the most dependent aspects, that being the timely delivery and installation of the aircraft’s engines. The irony of this is that the design of more technology laden and fuel-efficient engines was the prime catalyst that has fueled the current wave of airline demand for these aircraft.
The tradeoffs are one to ponder across this industry.
Rival engine producer CFM International has the opportunity to be the white knight for the industry, but here again, the producer has its own challenges.
The takeaway for industry players when considering the designs of the next generation of more sustainably fueled aircraft engines is a balancing of technology innovation and design for supply chain with overall operational reliability.
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