Regional jets may never regain their former glory but smart regional operators are finding new ways to shine, writes Max Kingsley Jones in London

What a difference a year makes. Twelve months ago, Airbus executives were at pains to dismiss suggestions that they were considering launching a re-engined A320 powered by advanced turbofans like Pratt & Whitney's geared turbofan or CFM International's Leap X. Now, few would bet against the European airframer - and its US counterpart Boeing - moving forward with upgraded versions of their single-aisle airliners before 2010 is out.

Bombardier firming up its GTF-powered CSeries programme in 2008 brought things into sharp focus for the incumbent narrowbody builders. Bombardier's 110- to 145-seat twinjet promises a 20% fuel burn advantage over the current designs. And the fact that this newcomer is now beginning to rack up sales - Bombardier recently landed a key order from US regional Republic Airways for up to 80 aircraft - has piled on the pressure.

Airbus A320 GTF
 © Tim Bicheno-Brown/Flightglobal

Meanwhile, some existing Airbus/Boeing single-aisle customers, such as lessor AerCap, have fanned the flames by warning that they will not be placing new orders until there is clarity in the "big two's" re-engining plans.

"With the Republic order, it's clear that the CSeries is a threat to Airbus and Boeing," says Richard Aboulafia, vice-president analysis at US consultancy Teal Group. "While the 100/130-seat part of the single-aisle market is small and getting smaller over time, neither big prime wants to lose 20-30% of their narrowbody sales and production volume. Airbus and Boeing are no longer in the driver's seat here. They need to move ahead with re-engined A320 and 737 families, with a launch this year."

But the reality is Airbus had been evaluating a GTF-­powered A320 for years. Before CSeries launch customer Lufthansa signed its firm contract for the all-new jet 18 months ago, Airbus was flight-testing the GTF on its A340-600 flying testbed. The official reason was to scrutinise the engine for future applications - presumably its "A30X" all-new single-aisle family - but in the background there was intensifying speculation (fuelled by comments from Airbus's chief salesman John Leahy) that the airframer had a more near-term plan for the engine.

At the same time, Boeing had been developing a mid-life update for its 737NG models, with aerodynamic, engine and cabin upgrades delivering a 2% fuel burn improvement, launched in 2009. Airbus has already responded with its "sharklet" winglet upgrade, which is due to come on stream in 2012, delivering a 3.5% gain.

The CSeries, expected to enter service in late 2013, has the big advantage of being an all-new airliner featuring a carbon fibre wing and an aluminium lithium airframe. However, this means it is not without its technical risks. There are also concerns that the way Bombardier has widely dispersed production partners may prove to be a headache.

"There are enormous risks to the CSeries production plan," says Aboulafia. "The major aerostructures partner, Chinese partner Shenyang, has never done anything like this before, and Bombardier would not be able to copy Boeing on the 787 and bring this work in-house if Shenyang proved unable to execute on the fuselage. Even without that factor, this project will likely strain Bombardier's resources to the breaking point."

There could also be worries about the GTF. Although P&W has rigorously tested the fan-drive gearbox, it has only just begun testing the engine's core - and this is an area where it came unstuck with its last civil turbofan, the PW6000, which had to undergo a redesign from which it never recovered.


Aboulafia thinks that P&W's new engine is "ready", but the key question is whether the proposed second-generation GTF, which the engine maker has talked about developing later this decade - and could possibly power any upgraded A320 or 737 - is more advanced than that powering the CSeries.

"That would put the Bombardier aircraft at even more of a disadvantage relative to the established players in this market," he says. "The airline business is clearly concerned that despite the worst recession since the Second World War, oil prices have stayed stubbornly high, implying a permanent high-cost fuel environment. That has clearly dampened any fears about introducing a next-generation engine. The emphasis is on fuel efficiency, not technological risk or the costs of introducing new equipment."

If the CSeries airframe and engine works as advertised, Bombardier will be well placed to snatch a chunk of the smaller end of the mainline jet market before any all-new design emerges from Seattle or Toulouse.

Airbus and Boeing concur that there will not be any "clean-sheet" designs from them until at least 2020 - Airbus' latest estimate is for 2024-25.

Meanwhile, the two long-term rivals have both committed to deciding what they will do about putting new engines on upgraded versions of their aircraft by year-end. Leahy from Airbus has said that he wants to get the decision "wrapped up" by July's Farnborough air show, with service entry targeted for the end of 2015.

The prospect of a re-engined A320 or 737 family emerging five years from now has, however, put a few clouds on Bombardier's horizon, although these clouds are not entirely unexpected.

"We'd always imagined that Airbus and Boeing might re-engine, but we believe that we have a nice window of opportunity with the only all-new airplane," says Bombardier Commercial Aircraft president Gary Scott.

He says that the CSeries's claimed 20% fuel burn advantage comes "roughly half each" from the engine and airframe. Scott explains: "So, if they put the same engine on their airframe then they'll probably cut that advantage in half, but they won't have the new airplane that we have and it won't be optimally designed."

Despite Scott's dismissal of the re-engined variants, Leahy says that Airbus has had "a surprising amount of interest" in its proposed re-engined A320 family, although he admits some of that may have been generated by Bombardier's claims of double-digit gains over the A320 with the GTF-powered CSeries. "If we do the re-engined A320, you could have your 15% lower fuel burn, and still have your A320," says Leahy.


One airline that is keeping a careful eye on the Airbus/Boeing moves is British Airways, which says it would be interested in upgraded versions of the current models, if they can deliver the double-digit fuel burn savings and so long as "complexity costs [such as holding spares and spare engines for a new engine] are not so large as to wipe out the fuel burn benefits". The airline adds that such aircraft "would be contenders for 737-400 or short-haul 767-300ER replacements if they were available by 2015".

But there is an inevitable complication for the current A320 and 737 models if interim upgraded variants are developed. Scott from Bombardier says: "It will cannibalise the backlogs for their current models as customers will want to swap to the new version. There is also a [negative] impact on the residual values of the installed fleet."

This view is supported by several analysts, with Rikard de Jounge, a senior director at appraiser Avitas, saying that if the upgraded A320/737 variants go ahead, the owners of current-generation aircraft "will be left holding the bag. The economic life of their assets will be curtailed".

Klaus Heinemann, chief executive of lessor AerCap, says that if the pattern of previous eras is repeated, then there is "roughly a five-year lag" from the introduction of the upgraded aircraft to impacting the residuals of current-generation models.

"If you take the 737 Classic versus the NG situation, five or six years into the programme of the NG you started to see significant impact on the residuals of the Classic. So if these new aircraft come into the market in 2015, we would expect to see an impact on residuals in 2020."

The narrowbody sector is central to AerCap's lease portfolio, and Heinemann says the current uncertainty over the airframers' next move is one of the reasons why it is holding off from placing more narrowbody orders: "We want to observe a little bit how these discussions pan out with the manufacturers," he says. Heinemann expects more clarity on re-engining talks to emerge "by the middle of the year".

Peter Barrett, chief executive of RBS Aviation Capital - another leasing player in the narrowbody market - concurs that the lessors are waiting to hear from Airbus and Boeing about their plans in full.

"A lot depends on how the manufacturers do it, how they execute it, how they introduce it, whether it is a replacement option, the pricing differential and how it fits with the existing order book," says Barrett. "Once those questions have been answered, it will be easier for lessors to take a view on how they will fit in with the existing fleet."

So the audience has taken its seats in anticipation, awaiting the Airbus and Boeing main event, and the good news is that they should not have to wait too much longer.


While the airframers ponder how and when to launch upgrades to their current narrowbody products, there is a fascinating battle of technologies playing out among the engine makers - with an interesting sub-plot surrounding the way one of the rivals will bring its offering to market.

Pratt & Whitney has been making the most noise in the drive to shake up single-aisle efficiency with its geared turbofan. This is a concept the company has been evaluating for at least a decade, but that has now launched into production as PW1000G on the Bombardier CSeries small mainline jet and the Mitsubishi MRJ regional jet.

CFM International, which has been Boeing's sole powerplant supplier on the 737 for a quarter of a century with its CFM56 and is market leader on the Airbus A320, has its own advanced turbofan under way.

Dubbed the Leap X, CFM's new engine has already been selected to power China's Comac C919 150-seat twinjet and it is vying with the GTF for the upgraded 737 and A320.

Richard Aboulafia 
 "With the Republic order, it's clear that the CSeries is a threat to Airbus and Boeing"
Richard Aboulafia
Vice-president analysis, Teal Group

"The GTF has a 3:1 reduction gearbox just aft of the fan, which permits the low-pressure turbine and the fan to each operate at their optimum speeds, thus maximising propulsive efficiency," says Bob Keady, senior vice-president sales at P&W. "This allows us to increase the fan size without increasing the low-pressure turbine."

P&W claims the GTF will deliver 12-15% lower fuel burn than today's engines, as well as lower maintenance costs. This is due to a reduction in low-pressure compressor and turbine stages, and therefore fewer aerofoils. It also boasts a 50% reduction in noise, equating Chapter 4 minus 20dB.

CFM's Leap X has heritage from technology developed over the past 10-15 years by partners GE and Snecma and engines, such as the GE90 and GEnx, says executive vice-president Chaker Chahrour.

He adds: "The engine will have 13-15% better fuel burn, and a significant reduction in noise, over today's engines."

Chahrour says that the advantage comes roughly 50/50 from a significantly higher bypass ratio and the advanced efficiency of the engine's new core.

"The engine has double the bypass ratio [of current engines] and features composite fan blades - the first time in an engine of this size. The core has a two-stage high pressure turbine, compared with single stage today, featuring advanced materials."

Chahrour goes on to explain: "The Leap X technology is adaptable to either application and we hope that we'll be on one or two of the [Airbus/Boeing] airplanes."

While CFM is active in the narrowbody market, P&W - as a standalone player - is not. And therein lies the rub.

So while the GTF is being evaluated by Airbus and Boeing for their proposed re-engined single-aisles, P&W's stated "preferred route to market" for these aircraft is through its partnership International Aero Engines, in which it is the lead shareholder with Rolls-Royce.

Airbus is also keen that the GTF comes through its existing A320 supplier IAE, rather than P&W, but that requires some delicate negotiating with the other shareholders - most notably R-R.


IAE has confirmed that it is evaluating a new powerplant as one option to compete against the Leap X.

IAE chief executive Ian Aitken says his company can adopt technology developed by P&W and the other IAE partners to put together an optimum engine.

Although P&W is waiting for an outcome from the IAE discussions, president David Hess has declared that it is "not afraid of going it alone".

Meanwhile, Richard Aboulafia, who is vice-president analysis at Teal Group, says the IAE alliance remains a major complication: "R-R doesn't want to work on a GTF, and Airbus, so far, wants to stick with IAE. One wonders whether Rolls has a back-up plan. We are looking at a very good chance that both airframers adopt new narrowbody engines around 2015. So, unless R-R has something up its sleeve, it's either GTF or abandoning this market," he says.

The UK engine maker is keeping tight-lipped about any "plan B", saying only that it is "actively engaged with all airframers and potential partners".

It has its own technology development programme, which includes the proposed "RB285" advanced three-shaft engine that could rival the Leap X and PW1000G. R-R believes that the design would deliver the same efficiency benefits as the GTF, without the need for a gearbox to decouple the fan.

Source: Airline Business