Last month, the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (COMAC) selected the CFM (GE & Snecma) LEAP-X1C engine to power the C919, the nation's entrant into the 150 to 200 seat market. The selection of the next generation CFM engine gives the LEAP-X a launch customer that comes with a guaranteed market: China.
That fact alone may be the final catalyst for a major leap forward from Boeing and Airbus, as airlines continue to call for all-new designs from both air framers.
History, while not repeating itself, is once again rhyming. The calls to replace the 737, and now the A320, are loud and clear, though top engineers at both companies believe that the gains of 20-30% efficiency sought by the airlines just aren't possible with today's engine technology.
We again hear calls about blunting the introduction of new aircraft; how either company could stop the CSeries CS100/300 and MS-21, both powered by the Pratt & Whitney PW1000G engine, and Comac C919 right in its tracks with a fresh design from the American or European airframers.
Between 1984 and 1988 when Airbus was moving beyond the A300 and A310 into the single aisle market to develop the A320, Boeing was creating an expanded 737 family with the -300 -400 and -500.
The 1986 Northwest Airlines order for 100 A320 aircraft changed the face of aerospace, giving Airbus a significant early foothold in the US market.
Bob Alizart, executive assistant to former Airbus CEO and managing director Jean Pierson, said of the A320 in John Newhouse's 2007 Boeing versus Airbus :
"Boeing should have killed this upstart. If Boeing had produced a clean sheet of paper the A320 never would have become Airbus's bread and butter."
But coming off of the 757 and 767 development programs in the early 80s, the family of three major derivatives for the 737 was the only feasible course.
The same calls were reiterated in 1996 when United ordered A319s, which were competing against the 737 Classics. Rather than a clean sheet design that would have been prohibitively expensive following the estimated $14 billion price tag of the 777, Boeing developed the 737 Next Generation family.
Though the Boeing strategy hardly needs any vindication stronger than the 7177 orders earned since March 1984 when the A320-100 was launched, yet Airbus has earned 6467 orders since then as well. Arguably, the competition has allowed both products to survive as long as they have, with perpetual improvements continually introduced.
Though the C919's LEAP-X selection potentially presents a unique competitive landscape for Boeing and Airbus in China. Boeing estimates China to be a 3,770 aircraft, $400 billion market over the next 20 years. More than 2,600 of those are forecast to be narrowbody aircraft.
China has also erected what the US is calling a "trade barrier" that provides products accredited for "indigenous innovation" preference in government purchases, which could potentially pose threat to Boeing when it comes to fleet acquisition for state-owned airlines.
Once again, while the impetus for a clean-sheet design from Boeing and Airbus remains, the commercial justification for such a course is unfeasible with significant resources already devoted the 787 and A350 programs. However, re-engining the 737 and A320 to take on the C919 and (a potentially even higher-capacity) CSeries in the heart of the narrowbody market is looking like the most likely course of action.
A recent report by Air Insight concludes that a 2010 announcement of re-engining for both the A320 and 737 is virtual certainty. Though the decision to re-engine both aircraft rather than develop an entirely new type will put the 737 and A320 on roughly equal footing with their new similarly-powered Canadian, Russian and Chinese competitors rather than blunting their rise before even getting off the ground. As a result, Boeing and Airbus's market share in the 100-200-seat category - now about 88% - could slip to as low as 40% in competition with new airframers.
While China and the C919 are far from the only impetus driving a re-engining decision by Airbus and Boeing, any roadblock to accessing the Chinese market is sure to push each airframer's decision to re-engine their narrowbody cashcows that much closer.