While virtually no one welcomed the near pause in airline operations this spring caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, one of the industry’s prominent engine companies has managed to find a silver lining. Pratt & Whitney, whose geared turbofan (GTF) family for years suffered from technical snags, has seized the opportunity to aggressively address some of the GTF’s latest problems, perhaps most notably those involving the main low-pressure turbine (LPT) in the PW1100G—one of the engines that power the Airbus A320neo.
Speaking with AIN just before the start of the July 20 to 24 FIA Connect event, Pratt & Whitney chief commercial officer Rick Deurloo expressed satisfaction with the progress his company has made in replacing the parts in the PW1100Gs in the field during a time of low utilization due to the pandemic.
“I can't tell you how many airline executives have said to me, 'Don't ruin this opportunity,'" said Deurloo. “And we are actually laser-focused on taking our GTF fleet and taking a look at what that configuration looked like pre-Covid and making sure when we exit this calendar year, and as we go forward, we are able to upgrade that configuration.”
Areas of focus include the PW1100G’s accessory gearbox, an airworthiness directive for which the FAA issued late last year. Deurloo reported good progress on that replacement program, as well as on one that involved the LPT, the blades on which required a material change. “That’s a known challenge—we have a new material going into that third-stage LPT; we’re setting up quick turns,” he explained. “One of the things we did as a company during this crisis is committing ourselves to the MRO piece and upgrading the GTF fleet across all platforms—Neo, A220, E2—to take the opportunity to focus on the entire fleet.”
Deurloo described the effort to solve the LPT problem as a “surgical strike” in which the company managed to access excess capacity at MRO partners caused by the Covid-19-associated lull in operations.
“Let me give you a great example—Delta Air Lines," he said. "They are a GTF customer; they have the A220 airplane they’re flying today, and they have an order book with us on the GTF for their A321neos. They also have an MRO partnership with us, similar to how Lufthansa does. As Delta's MRO load came down, it freed up capacity for them to say, ‘Hey, you know what? I’ll accelerate these LPT quick turns.’ They stepped up.”
Deurloo reported that Pratt “feels comfortable” that it will have gained access to all the A320neos at Indian airlines Indigo and Go Air for LPT retrofits by the August 31 deadline set by India’s Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA). The agency extended the deadline for replacing the LPTs from the end of May to allow for disruptions caused by the nationwide Covid-19 lockdown.
“It's actually progressing well,” he said. “We're taking advantage because as you know, India has been for a great part of this time on a lockdown. So it gave us the opportunity to get access to their fleet as well. They're now back in operations, but they're not 100 percent. They're slowly introducing the fleet in.”
So far, Pratt has completed 75 percent of the LPT upgrades and 82 percent of the accessory gearbox replacements on the 1,282 PW1100Gs in the field. It expects to finish 90 percent of the needed LPT fixes and all of the roughly 200 remaining accessory gearboxes by the end of the year.
“We're on track to get this fleet into a much better place as we enter 2021,” Deurloo stressed.
Separately, Pratt continues work on fixes to problems discovered with the PW1500G's first rotating low-pressure compressor stage following a series of in-flight shutdowns at Swiss International Airlines and Air Baltic. Last October Swiss temporarily grounded its 29-strong fleet of Airbus A220-300s and -100s after experiencing three engine shutdowns over four months. The most recent incident happened this past February, when the crew of an Air Baltic A220-300 had to shut down an engine and divert to Bordeaux while en route from the Latvian capital Riga to Malaga in Spain. Pratt has determined an appropriate fix and has finished the first round of associated testing, said Deurloo, who added that the company has managed to limit the number of resulting AOG days with effective spares management.
“We have corrective action identified, we’ve gone through initial testing, and that’s something we’re trying to work closely on with Airbus and our airline customers to get behind us,” reported Deurloo. “The A220 fleet has been doing incredibly well in service. We’ve noticed that as the airlines go back into operation, the A220 fleet is the first one they pull up.”
Deurloo pointed to Delta Air Lines’ A220 utilization rate as evidence of the model’s operational effectiveness, noting that the airline has not parked one of the Airbus narrowbodies since the onset of the Covid crisis. “They kept flying the entire time,” he said. “And today I think that fleet, from a utilization perspective, is only 18 percent lower than pre-Covid…It's pretty remarkable when you think the world utilization rate is still below 50 percent of what pre-Covid was.”
In fact, Deurloo explained that the comparatively small A220 fleet allowed Pratt to more effectively support the customers with spare engines than it could when the A320neo suffered some of its early problems, resulting in far fewer AOG cases. “Even though they had some removals, they didn’t have some of the longer AOG or multi-day AOGs the Neo fleet saw,” he noted. “So the A220 has actually had a very, very good customer experience.”