In a little over four years, Airbus has signed firm orders for more than 3,600 A320neo-family aircraft. Forty percent of those tail numbers – representing an astounding roughly 1,450 aircraft – remain up for grabs in the competitive engine duel between CFM International and Pratt & Whitney.

CFM has claimed the early advantage in the competition, with 33% of the declared engine selections, compared with 28% for P&W, but the lead position could still change several times as the first A320neo – powered by two PW1100G engines – enters service later this year. A selection by a single carrier – Lion Air, for example – to power all 174 unclaimed A320neos could pull P&W within a percentage point of CFM's lead. Alternatively, it could push CFM's numerical strength even further ahead.

That competitive dynamic has set the stage for some aggressive manoeuvring by P&W over the past year. In two key disclosures since May 2014, P&W has shown a new assertiveness which has changed the orders race and empowered Airbus to launch a strategically important new version of the A321neo a year ahead of the scheduled entry into service of the first major variant of the re-engined aircraft family.

Historically, P&W's aggressiveness this early in an engine production programme is unprecedented. The PW1100G engine family succeeds the International Aero Engines V2500 engine originally developed by a joint venture led by P&W and Rolls-Royce. P&W now controls V2500 production and PW1100G production, and it is moving with a speed on the latter that was never attempted on the current A320 design.

The V2500 entered production in 1989, and the first major performance improvement package dedicated to bettering specific fuel consumption did not appear until 16 years later.

By contrast, the PW1100G will not enter production until Airbus delivers the first A320neo in the fourth quarter. But already P&W has promised to deliver a performance improvement package in 2019 with a 2% reduction in specific fuel consumption relative to the entry-into-service target. "One major distinction is that this is an additional fuel reduction beyond our initial commitment to Airbus and not a fuel recovery package or PIP due to a shortfall," P&W tells Flightglobal.

Moreover, the thrust range of the PW1100G design has expanded at a remarkably faster pace than the V2500's. It took two decades for IAE to launch a 35,000lb-thrust (156kN) version of the V2500. A pair of 35,000lb-thrust V2500-E5s are powering the Embraer KC-390 now in certification flight testing. By contrast, P&W has already launched a 35,000lb-thrust version of the PW1100G, stretching the engine's thrust range within a few years of entry into service from 24,000lb thrust to 35,000lb thrust. It also adds 8% more thrust to the next-largest version of the PW1100G – a 33,000lb-thrust model developed to power the A321neo and a similar design that will be installed on the Irkut MC-21.

Those two developments – better fuel efficiency and more thrust – enabled Airbus to launch a long-range version of the A321neo last January, with the goal of replacing winglet-equipped Boeing 757-200s flying transatlantic routes beyond the range of the baseline A321neo and the 737 Max 9.

So far, CFM has not offered an answer to P&W's promised fuel efficiency improvement and thrust increase, but that could only be a matter of timing. The CFM development programme for the Leap-1A engine trails the schedule for the PW1100G by roughly nine months. P&W also has benefitted from its experience developing and certificating the similar PW1500G engine for the Bombardier CSeries, which was originally supposed to enter service two years ahead of the A320neo but now is scheduled to be delivered in the second half of this year.

So far, little is known about how the PW1100G will be modified to achieve the promised reduction in specific fuel consumption. The first engine built at the improved standard is now scheduled for introduction in 2019, with full production ramp-up achieved by 2021, P&W says. Over the next three years, P&W will be making a series of design decisions.

"There is a full suite of technologies in the design phase that will make up the PurePower Advantage package," P&W says. "As we complete the design and test process, the specific modifications will be selected as part of the Advantage package. This will include a combination of aerodynamic enhancements along with coating and cooling modifications."

Those coating and cooling modifications suggest that P&W engineers have discovered the engine core of the PW1100G is more robust than originally expected. If the compressor section can be tuned to increase the pressure of the airflow entering the combustion chamber, the coatings and coolings on the turbine components aft of the combustor will need to be improved.

The soaring order backlogs for both the A320neo and the 737 Max – approaching 6,300 firm orders in total – mean there is ample business for both engine types in development. However, CFM's sole-source position on the 737 Max and current lead on the A320neo provide an incentive for P&W to move aggressively. In addition to the Airbus application, P&W may be able to spread the improvements to other aircraft.

In recent months, Russian industry officials have discussed the need to reduce reliance on Western suppliers for locally designed aircraft. However, the first Irkut MC-21 is still expected to fly in 2016 with PW1400G engines, which are scheduled to achieve certification later this year.

P&W says it is "carefully monitoring" geopolitical developments in Russia, but "meeting our commitments both to Irkut for the MC-21 programme and to our airline customers is of critical importance to us".

Source: Cirium Dashboard