ANALYSIS: Can Rolls-Royce find a way back into narrowbodies?

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Despite committing the thrust of its development energies in a two-step evolution of its Trent family – the target being a widebody engine in the 2020s featuring extensive composite structures and geared technology – Rolls-Royce is reaffirming its determination to return to the single-aisle market.

According to Eric Schulz, president of civil large engines for the UK-based propulsion giant, the company is “preparing to re-enter the mid-market with conviction” as one of its “two big strategies” for the next decade (the other being to protect its 50% share in widebody orders). This comes two years after Rolls-Royce walked out on its partners in the International Aero Engines consortium.

However, with no place on the engine programmes for the Airbus A320neo, Boeing 737 Max or Bombardier CSeries, the next generation of narrowbodies being many years off and no obvious innovative technology on the cards anyway, it is difficult to see how Rolls-Royce can achieve this – unless there is other work going on behind the scenes.

The nearest open door would appear to be Seattle’s investigation into a replacement for its 757, to fill a gap between the top end of its 737 family and its entry-level 787. Rolls-Royce was launch engine supplier on the large narrowbody with the RB211, and supplied a large proportion of the type’s engines subsequently. “Boeing’s hints at a 757-type study must be a target,” says Chris Seymour, head of market analysis with Flightglobal advisory service Ascend.

The bigger prize – a place on an all-new Airbus and/or Boeing narrowbody, either as single supplier or as part of a consortium – looks a more distant prospect, both in terms of where the company is currently focusing its engineering resources and the OEMs’ own timescale. “There is clearly limited opportunity for Rolls-Royce before the late 2020s under the current market scenario,” says Rob Morris, head of advisory at Ascend.

However, as so often, black gold could change everything. “It’s the great unknown,” says Morris. “If oil prices increase significantly then the prerogative for an all-new single-aisle family with significantly improved operating economics over Neo and Max would increase.

"If Rolls-Royce was able to offer engine technologies that enabled that significant improvement, there could be an opportunity.”

With Neo and Max selling strongly, it is hard to work out what incentive either airframer would have to gamble on an all-new narrowbody design. But if one begins to nudge ahead – deliveries beyond 2017 show a market share of 55% for Airbus – that could prompt the lagging manufacturer to return to the drawing board sooner than might have been expected, argues Morris.

Rolls-Royce’s decision to pull out of the narrowbody market still perplexes. The UK company opposed the adoption of Pratt & Whitney’s geared turbofan as a successor to IAE’s V2500 – which powers about half the current generation A320-family aircraft in service – and sold its 32.5% share in the consortium to its US former partner. It was a move that did not sit happily with Airbus, which was uncomfortable with another engine supplier coming into the A320 (P&W had also held a one-third stake in IAE).

It also ended a legacy for Rolls-Royce that extended back to the 1950s. After the Avon turbojet was adopted for early short-haul types such as the Sud Aviation Caravelle and de Havilland Comet 4B, the British manufacturer developed the first turbofan aimed specifically at the narrowbody market – the Spey – which went on to power the Trident, BAC One-Eleven and Fokker F28 airliners.

After spinning-off the Tay in the 1980s to power a new spate of large business jets and regional airliners, Rolls-Royce established a Spey/Tay succession plan through a merger with BMW’s engine business in Germany, later buying out the auto maker’s share. However, while a new engine had some success in the business jet market with Gulfstream and Bombardier and also powered the 100-seat Boeing 717, it was its future partner P&W that made the running in narrowbodies.

In the 1980s, the ubiquitous JT8D established itself as the leading powerplant for a new generation of short-haul jets. However, a complacent P&W in turn found itself without a succession plan, and lost ground to the CFM56 from the Snecma/General Electric partnership.

By the mid-1980s the two narrowbody engine pioneers ended up facing a common enemy, so joined forces to create IAE (with other investors including the Japanese and Germany’s MTU) to produce an engine for the embryonic A320. At the time, Toulouse was optimistically talking about selling as many as 600 of the twinjet. To date, it has delivered 10 times that forecast – of which 43% (2,500 aircraft) are equipped with the V2500.

Speaking to journalists on 26 February, Schulz said Rolls-Royce “stands by” its decision to abandon IAE, and consequently the narrowbody sector. However, he insists: “Going forward it is a segment in which we intend to continue to play.”

He says technology being developed for large fans might be deployed into smaller engines. Ironically, perhaps, one of these technologies is a geared multistage intermediate-pressure turbine being proposed for UltraFan – the second of its two new engine concepts. Having rejected P&W’s geared turbofan design for the A320neo, a geared core may end up being one of the critical elements of its future engine strategy.

Additional reporting by Max Kingsley-Jones in London