All the speculation and chatter over the prospects of re-engining the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737s families will finally end this year, judging by statements from senior Airbus and Boeing executives this month. In fact, John Leahy, Airbus COO for customers, went so far as to say that his company would like to decide whether or not to proceed with a re-engining project by the time the Farnborough Air Show opens in July.
Leahy’s surprise disclosure during the Singapore Airshow (February 14 to 19) might well signal a sense of urgency neither company, until recently, has felt compelled to betray. And while Boeing, Airbus’ U.S. rival, continues to preach the virtues of patience, the coming challenge posed by the likes of Bombardier’s C Series and Comac’s C919 appears to have caught the attention of the Boeing hierarchy. “You can’t sit on a lead,” said Boeing CEO Jim McNerney at this month’s Cowan & Company Aerospace and Defense Conference. “Particularly as you’ve got the Canadians and the Chinese. If you milk a product too long, you invite competition.”
Apart from acknowledging the real prospect of challenges from Bombardier and Comac, McNerney also admitted that Airbus’s actions could influence Boeing’s decision. “Obviously what our competitor does will bear on the decision, and Airbus sounds very aggressive on re-engining,” he said.
The prospect of a mid-decade re-engining of the A320–with either an IAE-led adaptation of the Pratt & Whitney Geared Turbofan or a CFM Leap X variant, or both–and a 2024 target for introduction of an entirely new Airbus narrowbody raises a crucial question for Boeing: Does the U.S. company follow its rival’s lead or go its own way, abandon re-engining and, instead, spend its resources on developing technologies for its own brand-new airplane, perhaps well ahead of 2024? Would such a move, then, prompt Airbus to move faster toward launching an A320 replacement? Much depends on the timing of the next “step change” in engine technology.
“This will be the year we make that call,” McNerney said. “And the decision will be, do it–the re-engining–or wait and do the whole plane.”
Of course, Airbus and Boeing both need to render judgments on the degree to which the engine makers can improve their respective products and over what time period before they reach any conclusions about re-engining or, in fact, about the timing of new aircraft introductions. Any decision will amount to a gamble, but both manufacturers seem to have decided that a do-nothing approach presents an unacceptable risk of its own.