Aviation, like most industries, is defined by periodic “golden ages,” characterized by bursts of innovation and exciting competition. Examples include air travel in the 1930s, with the arrival of DC-3s and long-range Clipper Ships; the Jet Age in the 1960s, with aircraft manufacturers besting each other with stunning innovations such as the Boeing 747, Lockheed L-1011, and McDonnell Douglas DC-10; and perhaps the last decade for business aviation, with the creation of entirely new product categories and the arrival of Embraer as a bold new competitor.

We are arguably in the midst of another Golden Age. However, this one is not for aircraft, it is for gas turbines. Responding to the imperative for step-change improvements in fuel efficiency, four well-heeled aeroengine OEMs —two American and two European—have staked out bold and distinctive product development strategies that will shape new aircraft development for the foreseeable future. Backed by billions of dollars of annual R&D spending, this four-way battle is driving innovation in ways unforeseen just a few years ago. As a result, four major reengining programs are planned, with more on the horizon.

In one corner is the former champion, Pratt & Whitney. After seeing its commercial market share plunge to about 10% in recent years, from 90% in the late 1960s, Pratt is now resurgent with the geared turbofan (GTF) architecture (see photo).

The GTF is redefining the whole 70-180-seat segment, has created the massive wave of single-aisle reengining and underpinned the launch of the Bombardier CSeries and Mitsubishi Regional Jet. Not long ago, the GTF was considered by many to be the result of a quirky vision held by a certain few eccentric executives in East Hartford, Conn. Today the market recognizes the major gains in propulsive efficiency, simplicity, noise and maintenance costs enabled by the GTF.

The second contender is the reigning heavyweight champion, General Electric. Leveraging its scale, advanced technology and broad gas turbine portfolio—it is also the industrial gas turbine market leader—GE has created a new range of aeroengines, such as GEnx, Leap and Passport, that employ advanced materials, manufacturing processes, 3-D aerodynamics and systems.

GE is aggressively attacking aeroengine weight through the introduction of ceramic matrix composites and titanium aluminide in the hot section and expanded use of organic matrix composites in the fan section. GE will “print” the fuel nozzles for its Leap engine via additive manufacturing, and is introducing innovations including a novel debris rejection system. In contrast to Pratt, GE is betting heavily on advances in thermal efficiency, aerodynamics and weight reduction to answer the bell.

In the third corner is Rolls-Royce, the European champion. Just a few weeks ago, Rolls unveiled an ambitious product development roadmap that builds on its unique three-spool architecture (AW&ST March 3, p. 20). Rolls plans to offer a new engine dubbed Advance based on a re-cored XWB, which incorporates a composite fan blade and fan case.

Although no specific application has been announced, Rolls indicates the engine could be available by 2020. Could this be aimed at an A330neo and/or an A380neo? Speculation abounds. More significantly, Rolls has embraced Pratt's GTF architecture with another new engine, the UltraFan, which is planned for 2025. The UltraFan will aim to offer an astounding 15:1 bypass ratio and could yield a fuel burn improvement of 25% or more versus today's Trent 700.

Finally, there is Safran, the rising contender from France. Safran, best known for its role in the uber-successful CFM International, is now staking out its own space. It is a 50% partner on the Leap engine, it led the development of the hot section of the SAM146 on the Sukhoi Superjet, and it is now pushing into the business jet market with its new Silvercrest model. And Safran continues to expand its cooperation with GE, pushing beyond engines to nacelles via its Nexcelle joint venture.

Safran's rise means the “Big Three” in aeroengines are now the “Big Four.” An intriguing question: With two of the Big Four increasingly aligned, will Pratt and Rolls be pushed into greater collaboration or possibly a joint venture similar to CFM?

The arrival of a Golden Age does not mean guaranteed prosperity for aeroengine OEMs. Risks abound—technological, supply chain, financial and execution—in what promises to be another exciting decade of gas turbine development. One thing is certain: The outcome of this epic four-way battle will pace aircraft product strategies for the foreseeable future.

Contributing columnist Kevin Michaels is managing director for aviation consulting and services in ICF SH&E's Ann Arbor, Mich., office.