Pratt & Whitney’s geared turbojet emerges from global pandemic with growing performance advantage

Pratt & Whitney’s flagship commercial product, the Geared Turbofan, emerges from the global pandemic in better shape than other turbofans.

Data compiled by Pratt from the Aviation Week Intelligence Network indicates that on the Airbus A320neo, where Geared Turbofan (GTF) competes with CFM’s LEAP engine, GTF usage has exceeded LEAP for most of the pandemic.

Moreover, his lead seems to be widening.

Although overall commercial transport fleet utilization has been significantly reduced during the pandemic, the general trend has been for GTF-equipped transports to be the last aircraft taken out of service and the first aircraft returned to service.

Pratt’s advantage isn’t just limited to GTF: the same database shows that, when indexed to January 2020, fleet hours for Pratt’s commercial turbofan installed base fell by just 5 %, compared to 20% or more for competitors such as GE and Rolls-Royce.

But GTF is the product that will determine Pratt’s future business outcomes, so its ability to survive and thrive during the worst global pandemic in a century is seen within the company as a very good sign.

As of January 2022, the company (a contributor to my think tank) reports over 10,000 orders and commitments from over 80 customers.

More than 1,100 aircraft flown by 62 airlines operate with GTF, so many that another GTF takes off every 20 seconds.

The company reported in late 2020 that GTF had achieved an engine dispatch reliability rate of 99.98%.

Technical dispatch reliability is a critical performance metric reflecting airlines’ ability to execute schedules on time, and 99.98% is about as good as it gets for even the most mature engines.

With its gear technology now mastered, Pratt is set to evolve the engine by introducing improvements that will further differentiate GTF from other offerings on the market.

For example, in December the company announced GTF Advantage, an upgraded version of the base Airbus A320neo PW1100G engine that will reduce fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions by 17% compared to traditional turbofans.

The corresponding figure for the benchmark GTF is 16%; CFM has claimed similar performance for its LEAP engine, but the difference is that LEAP has no driveshaft between the front fan and the compressor and low pressure turbine, so it is limited in its ability to integrate additional improvements.

Some aviation authorities believe that eventually all turbofans will incorporate some variation of the geared configuration, as it is the only design feature that allows the fan and low pressure components to spin further at optimum speeds.

By using 3 to 1 reduction gears on the shaft behind the fan, designers can introduce higher bypass ratios and reduce the number of low pressure components that need to be included.

Even with the added weight of the gearbox, this allows an aircraft to fly further on a given amount of fuel, potentially opening up new routes.

Alternatively, the plane can carry more payload.

Either way, improved fuel efficiency is a boon for airlines at a time when some experts predict the cost of oil could top $100 a barrel.

At this level, some economy airlines will spend more than a third of their revenue on fuel.

An added benefit: Because the fan at the front of the engine can spin slower without limiting the performance of components further back in the engine, noise is reduced by up to 75%, a big plus for neighborhoods near airports .

Without a suitable configuration, Pratt’s rivals cannot hope to match this kind of performance.

Sure, they can introduce new materials and other improvements to their designs, but Pratt can do the same.

What other companies can’t do is introduce gears; it will require all new engines that don’t violate Pratt’s patents — breakthroughs that took the company 20 years and $10 billion to perfect.

Thus, the tone of Pratt & Whitney’s public statements about GTF changed brand awareness, emphasizing durability and scalability (i.e. manufacturing engines for additional aircraft classes) .

The company says GTF Advantage exemplifies the “long avenue of growth” that gear technology provides, a signal that it intends to continue to take market share in the future.

So while the pandemic has been a test for Pratt as it has for other motor and airframe companies, the underlying trend line for the company’s main commercial product remains positive.

With parent company Raytheon Technologies

poised to potentially become the world’s largest aerospace company, Pratt should have no trouble finding the resources to continue the pattern of innovation that has made it a real threat to its rivals.

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