Stephanie Taylor provides an update on the A320neo programme, exploring how both Pratt & Whitney and CFM International’s engines have affected the aircraft’s operations.

    The A320neo is by far the star of the A320neo family of aircraft. At the time of writing, the type has received 3,677 orders since its launch in 2010, compared to 1,481 orders for the A321neo, and a mere 51 orders for the A319neo.

    A testament to the aircraft type is the sheer scale of the A320neo orders placed. Having previously committed to 427 A320neo family aircraft, Indigo Partners doubled its order at the Dubai Airshow 2017 in November, signing a contract for an additional 430 A320neo family aircraft. This marks Airbus’ largest ever jetliner acquisition.

    Airbus and Indigo Partners signed a MoU
    Airbus and Indigo Partners’ signed a MoU for 430 additional A320neos

    Of the 430, 273 will be A320neo aircraft, which will be divided amongst the airlines owned by Indigo Partners. Wizz Air is set to take 72 A320neos, Frontier Airlines to take 100, JetSMART to take 56 and Volaris to take 46. Engine selections are due to be made at a later date.

    However, Indigo Partners is not the only company that recognises the potential of the A320neo in the low-cost carrier (LCC) market. AirAsia has ordered 304 of the type (13 have been delivered); GoAir has ordered 144 (8 have been delivered); Lion Air has ordered 113; easyJet has ordered 100 (2 have been delivered), Norwegian has ordered 67, and the list goes on.

    CFM International argues that utilisation and flexibility are the primary reasons LCCs value the aircraft type. Jacques Chausse, LEAP program director, Airbus Programs, comments, “They have found it is so reliable – they have much more scheduling flexibility. They can interchange a ceo [current engine option] with a neo or vice-versa to fit route requirements with no issues.

    “In fact, they are flying the LEAP-powered A320neo aircraft 10+ hours per day.” This utilisation rate is higher than the average across the whole operational A320neo fleet, which Airbus spokesperson Martin Fendt claims stands at close to nine hours per day.

    “Right now, the LEAP-1A is maintaining a fleet-wide days’ flown ratio of 96 per cent,” Chausse continues.

    “That translates to the fleet flying 29 days out of every month. The days they don’t fly could be caused by things totally unrelated to the engines – customer aircraft down days for interior modifications, training, etc. are part of this count.” According to Chausse, CFM’s LEAP-1A is fast approaching its one-million-hour milestone.

    WOW air A320neo
    WOW is flying its A320neo to Scandanavia

    WOW air currently operates one CFM-powered A320neo leased from Air Lease Corporation on its routes from Reykjavik to destinations in Scandinavia (such as Stockholm and Copenhagen) as well as to Tel Aviv and Pittsburgh, PA.

    Daniel Snaebjornsson, the carrier’s vice president network and planning, says the introduction of two further A320neos to its fleet by the beginning of 2019 will allow it to expand further into North America with a focus on smaller cities and to “better match capacity with demand, by using an A321neo during peak summer and an A320neo during the winter.”

    Fuel efficiency and dispatch reliability are also defining characteristics of the aircraft type. “Our A320neo consumes 15 per cent less fuel per seat versus our A320ceos,” Snaebjornsson reveals, confirming Airbus is delivering on its promise to deliver at least this much in terms of fuel savings.

    The OEM aims to up this to 20 per cent by 2020 through cabin innovations and further engine efficiency improvements and is investing over €300 million in innovation each year to help meet this target.

    Snaebjornsson says the aircraft is also performing very well with regards to dispatch reliability –Fendt stating it currently stands close to that of the A320ceo, at 99.6 per cent across 230,000 flight hours within over 128,000 flights conducted with both engine types (the LEAP-1A from CFM and the PW1100G-JM from Pratt & Whitney).

    With such high demand even in just the LCC arena, there needs to be a delivery schedule to match, and this is where Airbus is leaving customers wanting.

    In its summary to 31 October 2017, Airbus logged the delivery of 90 A320neo aircraft, which accounts for nearly 23 per cent of the OEM’s total 399 single-aisle aircraft deliveries during the first nine months of the year. However, when these numbers were revealed, chief executive officer of Airbus, Tom Enders, stated, “This year’s delivery schedule is extremely back-loaded, largely due to the well-known engine problems plaguing our A320neo family.”

    The A320 family’s four final assembly lines in Toulouse, France; Hamburg, Germany; Tianjin, China; and Mobile, AL; are currently producing 50 aircraft per month and hope to reach a rate of 60 per month by mid-2019.

    The Final Assembly Line Asia (FALA), which was the result of a joint venture involving Airbus with a Chinese consortium comprising the Tianjin Free-Trade Zone and Aviation Industry Corporation of China, delivered the first Chinese-made Airbus A320neo to AirAsia on 25 October 2017. FALA is currently producing four A320 family aircraft per month.

    Air Asia A320neo
    The first Chinese-made Airbus A320neo was delivered to AirAsia in October

    However, a supply issue with the fan blades for the PW1100G-JM engine was one of the things slowing deliveries down. A spokesperson from Pratt & Whitney (P&W) says, “P&W developed a new hybrid metallic fan blade for the geared turbofan engine (GTF). The fan blade performance has been right on target. It is lightweight and is the most efficient fan blade in its thrust size.

    “We did have early challenges with a yield that impacted deliveries that were not design-related and they have been addressed. Fan blades are no longer pacing engine deliveries as we’ve tripled our production output through automation and are opening two more production facilities.

    “We now have two facilities in Lansing, Michigan and one with our partner IHI in Japan. The 16 per cent fuel reduction of the GTF is in large part due to the GTF ultra-high bypass ratio and the high level of fan efficiency.”

    “Regarding the number three-compartment oil seal, we first started seeing a pattern of ‘oil chip detected’ alerts, and upon boroscope inspection, we discovered some wear on the carbon seal. In May 2017, we deployed an improvement package to all operators and incorporated it into new production engines and overhauls.

    “The number three-carbon seal drove the majority of the visits across the fleet. To date, we have successfully accumulated almost 60,000 flight hours with the upgraded configuration. Currently, 80 per cent of the installed engines have the latest modification.

    This modification, along with the increase in our MRO network capability, will minimise disruptions in our customer operations. We have additional durability enhancements that are currently undergoing ground and flight testing for near term incorporation,” P&W states.

    While Qatar Airways still needs winning over – the carrier was to be the launch customer of the A320neo, but is yet to accept a delivery of the type, with chief executive officer Akbar Al Baker concerned over the Pratt & Whitney engine issues – for airlines such as Spirit and IndiGo, which are continuing operations with the aircraft while they undergo maintenance work, the solutions have come none too soon.

    Aditya Ghosh, president of IndiGo claimed during the company’s fiscal 2Q18 financial results conference call on 31 October 2017, “We added six aircraft during the quarter, of which two were A320neos, taking our total fleet count to 141 and our A320neo fleet count to 24. As we have discussed previously, the challenges associated with the neo engines and the shortage of spare engines from Pratt & Whitney led to the grounding of as many as nine neo planes at its peak last quarter.

    Airbus A320neo
    Fuel efficiency and dispatch reliability are also defining characteristics of the A320neo

    “We have started receiving some of the spare engines and we currently have no A320neo on the ground awaiting spare engines. Having said that, we continue to monitor the situation closely and work with the manufacturer to maintain sufficient spares. In parallel, we are also looking at various options to mitigate the shortfall in our desired capacity growth by looking at getting more aircraft from the secondary market on short term leases.”

    That’s not to say CFM hasn’t encountered its own, albeit more minor, engine issues. Chausse says of the LEAP-1A, “The starter air valve, a line replaceable unit, was causing some delays. We redesigned the part, which resolved the issue, and about 75 per cent of the fleet has completed the retrofit. Other issues have pretty much-been one-offs. Everything else we have experienced has been manufacturing process or quality issues.

    “These have actually come from a variance in the first-time yields of our forged and cast parts. So, we have modified some of the processes, as well as the inspections,” Chausse adds. “We are still pretty early in the ramp-up, but are currently producing 20 engines a week, so we are pretty far off the learning curve. Our overhaul capability is also coming online pretty rapidly, as well.”

    For both engine manufacturers, the focus seems to be on continuing to improve their offerings. When it comes to extended operations (ETOPS), both are on equal footing, having received ETOPS certification from the FAA and EASA. This means the A320neo can now travel over water up to 180 minutes from an airport. The P&W spokesperson clarifies, “This is not just about international routes; ETOPS allows airlines to take advantage of water routes up and down a coastline as well.”

    Nonetheless, when it comes to the Pratt & Whitney engine, Airbus appears to be increasingly taking engine matters into its own hands.

    In November 2017, Magellan Aerospace was announced to design, develop and manufacture exhaust systems for the A320neo PW1100G-JM nacelle, with the first unit scheduled to enter service in 2022. Woodward, Inc. has also been contracted to supply the thrust reverser actuation system (TRAS) for the new nacelle.

    Fendt explains, “Bringing nacelle capability in-house is a strategic decision for Airbus’ competitiveness and to improve aircraft performance and efficiency, bringing added value to customers. With the nacelle being part of the airframe, Airbus’ expertise in architecture and integration can be utilised to improve the overall aerodynamic efficiency of the aircraft.”

    Inside the aircraft, passengers on A320 family jetliners, including the neo, will be able to benefit from Airbus’ Airspace cabin design from 2020. Airspace sees a new overhead stowage bin design developed in a fixed configuration to provide 40 per cent more volume.

    In addition, the A320 family lavatories in the Airspace cabin match the Airspace features developed for the A330neo and A350 XWB, including ambient sound, aroma dispensers, and antibacterial surfaces.

    Despite any teething problems, the adaptable nature of the A320neo programme and the suppliers involved appears to mean that whether in response to known issues or just straight-up innovation, carriers purchasing the aircraft have much to look forward to in the coming years.

    Editor’s Note: The post was originally published in January 2018.