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Boeing 737 Max engine manufacturer shifts to Airbus models

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(FILES) In this file photo taken on March 27, 2019 Boeing 737 MAX airplanes are pictured at the Boeing Renton Factory in Renton, Washington. – Boeing sent internal documents to the US Congress in December, including communications in which employees mocked regulators and brag that they can certify the 737 MAX with minimal pilot training. Among these messages are exchanges between test pilots at Boeing who report problems with flight simulators that replicate actual flight conditions, the aircraft manufacturer explains in a statement released on January 9, 2020. (Photo by Jason Redmond / AFP)

With Boeing suspending production of their 737 Max this month and its immediate future uncertain, the joint venture between General Electric and Safran that manufactures the engines that power the embattled max is turning to Airbus to fill the void. This year, the joint venture, CFM, will do more business with Airbus than Boeing.

CFM makes an engine called the Leading Edge Aviation Propulsion (LEAP). In a nutshell, the LEAP is a slimmed-down version of Safran’s low-pressure turbine seen in the GEnx engines. Technological advances and the use of composite materials means the LEAP engine will use 16 per cent less fuel than other comparable engines. It is the only engine option for the 737 Max.

Throughout the 737 Max woes, the performance or reliability of the LEAP engines has never been called into question. And while CFM had a variant of the LEAP engine available for both Boeing and Airbus, the nearly 5,000 Max aircraft Boeing had on order were, to put it mildly, money for jam for CFM.

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But the immediate fate of the 737 Max is uncertain, and timelines keep being pushed back. However, as a report in Barron’s notes, CFM and its LEAP engine look set to survive with a fresh focus on Airbus. The LEAP engine is an option for Airbus’ popular A320neo aircraft.

The A320neo is a direct Max competitor. Barron’s cites a report in the Wall Street Journal saying nearly 60 per cent of CFM’s engines manufactured in 2020 will go to Airbus while some 40 per cent will go to Boeing. Previously, the split has been about 50/50.

According to the WSJ, the move by CFM is a deliberate strategy to mitigate against 737 Max production problems at Boeing. The Max grounding is reported to have cost one of CFM’s partners, General Electric, $1.4 billion with fewer engines than forecast produced and full payment not coming through.

CFM is also benefiting off the back of design problems for the Pratt & Whitney geared turbofan engine also used by Airbus on the A320neo. Problems with the Pratt & Whitney engines are contributing to production delays at Airbus and causing disruptions for some airlines.

This has seen several airlines switch from the Pratt & Whitney engines to CFM LEAP engines for their A320neo orders. In the middle of 2019, IndiGo made the switch, electing to equip 280 A320neo and A321neo aircraft on order with LEAP engines rather than Pratt & Whitney engines. This was despite a pre-existing relationship with Pratt & Whitney.

In an early Christmas present for CFM, Qatar Airways switched from Pratt & Whitney to CFM for the 50 A320 family jets it has on order.

The issues with the 737 Max highlight the wisdom of any supplier, large or small, not relying on a single customer. And while CFM looks set to weather the problems with the Max, its decision to put more time and energy into Airbus is another sign that the Max grounding (and production suspension) will not be lifted anytime soon.

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