Dubai Airshow

New Crop of Narrowbodies Promise Giant Leap in Efficiency

 - November 7, 2015, 2:15 AM

Long considered a hotbed of widebody sales, the Middle East in more recent years has also become a prime target of opportunity for narrowbodies, as the likes of FlyDubai, Air Arabia and Jazeera Airways rank as some of the world’s fastest growing low-fare carriers. Over the past decade Airbus and Boeing each have enjoyed the fruits of what has proved to become another lucrative market for single-aisle jets. Now, as they prepare to introduce “re-engined” narrowbodies in the form of the A320neo and 737 Max and Canada’s Bombardier, Russia’s Irkut and China’s Comac ready their own market entrants, airlines around the world stand to soon reap further economic benefits from new technology promising co-called “double digit” fuel-burn improvements and seat-mile cost reductions.

The first of the new models due to enter the market–the Airbus A320neo–remains on schedule for certification and first delivery to Qatar Airways by the end of the year, after the company had to distribute certification work among its flight-test articles to recoup time lost due to a defect in one of the first prototype’s two Pratt & Whitney PW1100G-JM geared-turbofan (GTF) engines.

A resulting “pause” in testing of theinitial two aircraft, both GTF-powered, followed the discovery in April of the manufacturing flaw, which involved a 10-inch-diameter retaining ring in the powerplant’s combustor section. The second of the pair returned to the air in late July, followed by the original airplane later in the summer.

A third machine–equipped with alternative CFM International Leap-1A engines–continued flying after pausing briefly over the summer for engine-upgrade installation, on-board equipment enhancement and maintenance. Airbus’s flight test revisions meant that the airplane had to undertake additional work previously earmarked for the GTF-powered A320neos and unrelated to enginesystems.

On September 30, Airbus confirmed it had to ground the first Pratt-powered example yet again, after finding a “minor problem” in one of its engines, following hot-weather trials in Al Ain. The company insisted, however, that the incident would not affect plans to deliver the first airplane to Qatar by the end of the year.

As of October 1, five A320neo flight-test airplanes, two of which have CFM engines, had accumulated some 868 hours during more than 292 flights. The third Pratt-powered example, MSN 6720, flew for the first time on September 25. Airbus uses that airplane for function and reliability tests. The second CFM-powered airplane, MSN 6642, took to the air for the first time on September 29.

Meanwhile, the A320neo’s primary competitor–the Boeing 737 Max–remains on schedule for certification and delivery to launch customer Southwest Airlines in the third quarter of 2017. The company announced on September 15 it had started final assembly of the first 737 Max 8 on schedule at its narrowbody plant in Renton, Washington. In early June Boeing announced that it had started to assemble the wings for the first Max, marking the official start of production of the company’s latest family ofnarrowbodies.

“We have a lot more work still ahead of us, but we’re very pleased with our progress todate,” said Keith Leverkuhn, Boeing Commercial Airplanes vice president and general manager.

Boeing places particular emphasis on the airplane’s newly designed winglets, which the company estimates will deliver up to a 1.8 percent fuel efficiency improvement over current “in-line” wingletdesigns.

Boeing will build the first 737 Max jets exclusively on the new production line in the Renton factory. The new production line will allow the team to isolate assembly of the first 737 Max from the rest of production to help it learn and perfect the new build process while the Renton factory continues to turn out airplanes at rate of 42amonth.

Boeing has set an efficiency improvement target for the Max 8–the first of four Max family members–of 14 percent over the 737-800NG. The 737 Max team remains on schedule to roll out the first completed Max 8 by the end of the year and fly it in early 2016.

In terms of firm orders, Airbus and Boeing by far dominate the field of competitors that also includes the Bombardier CSeries, the Comac C919 and the Irkut MC-21. While the Chinese C919 and Russia’s MC-21–scheduled to gain their respective certifications in 2017 and 2018–enjoy somewhat captive markets in their home countries, the CSeries must compete against the Boeing and Airbus models on a far more global basis. In Russia, the fall in the ruble has led the government to encourage closer ties between its manufacturers and airlines. In the case of China, the state-controlled airlines often face pressure to buy Chinese, a fact that has kept the long-delayed ARJ21 regional jet viable in its home country.

Bombardier could rightly counter that in the capacity category the CSeries occupies, its product has actually outsold the 737 Max 7 and A319, neither of which have attracted much attention or market success. Still, questions over the overall size of the market Bombardier has targeted with the CSeries persist. Scheduled for certification by the end of the year and introduction into revenue service with launch customer Swiss International Airlines by the middle of next year, the CSeries as of mid-October hadn’t yet collected the orders for 300 airplanes that management had targeted for the period leading to service entry.

Once considered a contender for an order by Qatar Airways, whose CEO, Akbar Al Baker, has since dismissed the possibility, the CSeries has drawn a pair of customers from the Middle East in the form of Bahrain’s Gulf Air and Iraqi Airways. Bombardier management hopes a positive experience by Swiss and eventually the likes of Gulf Air will turn mere interest into orders from airlines in the Middle East and beyond.

Although Bombardier fully intends to gain certification by the end of this year, it has given itself a substantial time buffer to ensure on-time EIS.

The cautious approach would seem warranted, as potential customers exhibit what Bombardier Commercial Aircraft president Fred Cromer called a “wait-and-see attitude” until certification authorities issue their approvals. “The general sentiment is that everyone wants us to get it right up front,” said Cromer during an interview with AIN in late spring. “We are now proving that to be the case considering what we’re now seeing with the impressive performance–we’re building that market confidence.”

By September 10 the program had finished all noise performance testing, which, according to Bombardier, validated claims that the GTF-powered jet would prove the quietest airplane in its class. By mid-October, the six CS100 flying prototypes had completed more than 90 percent of their flight testing. The first production CS100 since had begun function and reliability testing, signaling the start of the final flight-testing phase.

Earlier this year, Bombardier announced an increase in the CSeries’ maximum range, from 2,950 nautical miles to 3,300 nautical miles.