Could Akbar Al Baker dump the GTF for the LEAP?

by Aaron Karp
Feb 25, 2016

Qatar Airways’ CEO threatens to “cancel the entire Pratt & Whitney order.”

The Airbus A320neo is particularly fascinating because, in a commercial aircraft manufacturing era that is mostly about engine technology, it offers a direct mano a mano duel between the Pratt & Whitney geared turbofan (GTF) and the CFM International LEAP engine programs. With airlines able to choose between the PW1100G and the LEAP-1A to power their A320neo family aircraft, we will be able to see which next-generation engine performs better under which circumstances. But most observers figured it would be some time, after multiple aircraft with the engine options were in service for a quantifiable period, before any definitive conclusions could be reached.

Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker, never one to shy away from a controversy, is already threatening to throw a burning ember on the GTF vs. LEAP fire. Qatar was supposed to be the A320neo launch customer, but backed out late last year because of operating restrictions related to startup time on the PW1100Gs powering the A320neos designated for Qatar. Lufthansa took the first A320neo instead, and it’s now unclear when Qatar will begin taking the 50 GTF-powered A320neos it has on order.

At last week’s Singapore Airshow, Al Baker said Qatar will refuse to accept any A320neos until the PW1100G is “very much corrected,” according to Reuters. He said he wanted to be “very clear” that Airbus is not at fault, but “no airplane can fly without an engine.” Al Baker is happy with the A320neo and is not considering cancelling any of the 50 re-engined Airbus narrowbody aircraft Qatar has on order. But “we could cancel the entire Pratt & Whitney order” and may have “no alternative” but to switch to the LEAP-1A, he said, adding that Pratt has “months” to get the PW1100G up to Qatar’s standards.

A day after Al Baker came down hard on Pratt, I was at a press briefing in Singapore given by Pratt president-commercial engines Greg Gernhardt, who was read back Al Baker’s quotes by reporters and asked to reply.

Gernhardt maintained a polite, even tone. “We all realize Al Baker is a very demanding customer,” he said, later adding, “We all know Al Baker. He’s a demanding customer.”

Gernhardt said Pratt has “been working very closely with Qatar,” adding, “We agree there are some minor tweaks we have to make.” He said the engines would be ready for Qatar in the “June timeframe … At that point, the engines with all the fixes for the minor teething issues will be delivered.”

Just prior to traveling to Singapore for the air show, Gernhardt told me that “minor hardware changes and minor software changes” are all that is needed to resolve the PW1100G’s startup restrictions. “We’re extremely pleased with the way the aircraft and engine are performing in service [with Lufthansa],” Gernhardt said. “Fuel burn is spot on.” He emphasized that “the basic architecture of the engine is fine … We don’t see any major retrofits or redesigns required.”

My take is that everyone involved—certainly Airbus and Pratt, but also Qatar—would very much like to avoid the complications of switching from GTFs to LEAPs for Qatar’s 50 A320neos. (Though, of course, GE Aviation and Snecma, which make up the CFM joint venture, wouldn’t mind!)

Pratt is on the clock. It better have the fixes implemented on the PW1100G by June, not just for Qatar but for the other initial A320neo customers who have ordered the GTF. Airbus said this week that A320neo deliveries would be “back-loaded” this year, which I interpreted as meaning that a number of the PW1100G-powered A320neos that were supposed to be delivered in the 2016 first half will be moved to the year’s second half. Spirit Airlines, which has five PW1100G-powered A320neos scheduled for delivery this year, has publicly stated it has been told to expect delays of up to several months.

Any additional delay tied to the PW1100G that pushes 2016 A320neo deliveries into 2017 could be disastrous for Pratt. There are still a lot of airlines deciding which engine choice to make for the A320neo. And if Al Baker were to follow through on his threat of dumping the GTF for the LEAP, would other airline CEOs feel empowered to follow? Pratt absolutely does not want to find out.

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