One for all?

(The following article appeared as a leading article in Flight International 26 March 2013)

There was a sense of déjà vu, and similar mixture of feelings, when Boeing announced on 15 March that only a General Electric engine will power the 777X.

Boeing’s decision comes 14 years after the 115,000lb-thrust (67kN) variant of the GE90 gained a landmark exclusivity deal on the 777-200LR and 777-300ER, in return for GE’s commitment to invest $100 million to help Boeing develop the airframes and another $500 million to develop and certificate the engine.

Once again, Pratt & Whitney and Rolls-Royce have walked away as the losers in an increasingly dead-locked engine battle worth hundreds of billions, if a broad consensus of market forecasts are to be believed.

The dual-engined 787 programme now looks like an aberration in the modern twin-aisle market.

Exclusivity deals, whether formalised in the case of the 777 or de facto in the case of the Airbus A350XWB, appear to be the norm in the twin-aisle segment.

Engine choice has never been a right in the aircraft industry. The exclusive deal between Boeing and GE-Snecma joint venture CFM to power the 737 pre-dated the 777-200LR/300ER selection by decades. Regional jet makers dwelling in the thinnest slice of the air transport pie chart never offer more than

one engine.

Demand limitations, however, have never been quite the same issue in the twin-aisle sector, at least in the post-trijet era. Boeing partly sold the exclusivity deal for the GE90 to European regulators in the late-1990s by claiming there was only a market for up to 500 ­777-200LR and -300ERs combined. We now know differently. Boeing’s order tally stands at 745 – and counting. There has also never been a lack of competitive performance. The GE90 struggled to compete with Rolls-Royce and P&W engines on the original 777, before higher-power variants evolved to set a new industry standard. In the latest contest, the Rolls-Royce bid featured an engine with a slightly higher overall pressure ratio than the GE9X.

In some ways, the airlines brought this on themselves. By playing one engine maker against the other and forcing engines to sell almost free, the airlines created an unsustainable situation and forced some of the engine makers to react by pursuing exclusivity.

It is now the engine makers’ turn to deal with the consequences of an unsustainable market trend. As long as there are only two Western airframe makers and three engine suppliers signing only exclusive pacts, something will have to give.


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