Airbus this year is facing crucial decisions that will determine the shape of its widebody product line and could have a lasting impact on engine manufacturers. Changes could include an earlier-than-expected return of Pratt & Whitney as an independent player in the long-haul aircraft market.

The European manufacturer is facing increasingly pressing questions about all its long-haul aircraft: It will have to decide whether to reengine the A330, how to improve the A380 and where it is taking the A350 family. At the same time, R&D budgets are being reduced to more sustainable levels now that A350 efforts have peaked. “You have to look at the big picture. We are not going to keep investing at the same level,” says executive vice president of programs Tom Williams.

Airbus's choices will affect the fate of other programs. The company is wary of having to work through two major modification programs at the same time. An upgraded A330 could also cannibalize the A350-800. The most pressing issue is whether to reengine the A330. “We have to make the A330 decision this year,” Williams makes clear. He believes the life of the current A330 can be extended to about 2018 at today's rate of 10 aircraft per month. Airbus's backlog of 255 aircraft would fill production capacity until 2016, and given continuing demand it is confident it can extend production by about two more years until a major upgrade would arrive.

Initiatives to make the current aircraft more attractive in the short term include the new 242-ton version that extends range further and will be available from around mid-2015 as well as the new regional variant. While the increased maximum-takeoff-weight (MTOW) version will enter service with Delta Air Lines next year, the A330 Regional is mainly geared toward the domestic market in China.

Making a reengined A330 available by 2018 or 2019 would require 2-3 years of upfront development work. Williams says “the business case is more difficult than the A320neo.” Because the expected number of aircraft is much smaller, the return on investment has to be achieved more quickly. “We would also be launching into a crowded space,” he points out, referring to the Boeing 787 and, to a degree, the A350.

Williams also says that within the scope of A330 operations not all missions would lend themselves for reengining. Ultra-longhaul transpacific flights are likely to remain the domain of the A350 or Boeing 787s and 777s, while the A330 would benefit from more engine efficiency in medium- and long-haul operations of up to 12 hr. On the other end of the spectrum, as with the A320neo or Boeing 737 MAX, the benefit of more efficiency below a certain threshold becomes more limited because the cruise portion of the flight is so short. The proposed A330neo would be a heavier aircraft and that would potentially penalize short-haul operations—the market segment Airbus has been pushing into recently to capture a larger share of Chinese domestic services. Airline industry sources believe the reengined A330 could reach an average fuel burn advantage of 8% over the existing model. “There are some complicated trade-offs to consider,” Williams says.

While engine choice would be ideal from a sales perspective, Williams is pushing internally for an exclusivity deal. “Having two different engines may be difficult to justify, you always have to keep non-recurring costs in mind,” he points out. Changes to pylons and nacelles would have to be designed twice, and separate certification programs would add to costs, too. But if Airbus decides to go ahead with the proposal, it opens the door for what could become a serious reshuffling in the engine market. This may not only affect the A330, but ultimately also the A380, which Emirates also wants to be reengined.

Williams does not see a common new engine for the A330 and A380 as the optimal solution. Concerns include the sizing of the core and overall architecture, as well as weight. “It really does not make much sense,” he believes. He says Pratt & Whitney “is very interested” to offer a geared turbofan engine, while Rolls-Royce and General Electric (GE) could offer bleed versions of the Trent 1000 and the GEnx-1B, respectively.

Pratt's surprise appearance as a potential A330neo engine provider offers the intriguing possibility of a shake-up in today's big fan business—effectively a duopoly between GE and Rolls. With slim prospects for the development of any other all-new widebody this decade, the A330neo and reengined A380 could offer Pratt its only opportunity to evolve the PW1000G GTF into a higher-thrust family of engines for twin-aisle applications.

Pratt has made no secret of its desire to more than double the power of the current A320neo version of the GTF to thrust levels of 70,000 lb. and more, as required for initial twin applications. “The architecture is compelling because we are not just pushing the limits of temperature and performance—we took a step change architecturally and that is what Tom Williams sees,” says Dave Brantner, president of Pratt & Whitney Commercial Engines. However, he declines to discuss specifics about various higher-thrust GTF concepts. “Under various non-disclosure agreements we are discussing a lot of things,” he adds. The development of the current PW1000G family remains the company's main priority. “We are focused on delivering what we have promised to our customers and that includes Airbus. Our limitations are resources and time and we certainly are not going to take our eyes off the ball.”

The PW1000G family is in development for five new narrowbody programs including Bombardier's CSeries, the A320neo, Mitsubishi Regional Jet (MRJ), Irkut MS-21,and Embraer's E2Jets. “We have 30 engines on test and have accumulated 7,600 hours, 17,000 cycles and 850 flight-test hours so far,” Brantner says. The PW1500G version is powering initial CSeries test aircraft, the first flight-test PW1200G engines are under assembly for the MRJ, and preparations are underway for a final flying testbed campaign for the PW1100G before shipment of the first A320neo shipset to Airbus later this summer.

Plans for growing the GTF include raising the gear ratio from its 3:1 to higher levels up to 3.5-4.0, as well as increasing both bypass and pressure ratio. Compared to the neo engine's 12:1 bypass and approximately 50:1 pressure ratio, Pratt says, next-generation GTF studies have focused on bypass ratios of up to 15:1 and compressor pressure ratios closer to 60:1. The engine maker also plans to introduce more advanced technologies into the core to boost thermal efficiency, which would dovetail with the propulsion efficiency gains.

Even if the proposed Pratt option for the A330neo cannot be simply rolled over to the A380, it is suggested that development could be viable if the twin jet deal was sole-source. With the company over the hump on most major development spending for the first GTF generation, Pratt may be in a better position to consider launching a follow-on engine effort, particularly if an A330neo win provides the platform for a follow-on A380 engine.

Aside from technical considerations, a potential complication on the A380 is linked to Pratt's involvement in the Engine Alliance with GE, which provides the existing GP7200. Senior sources within Pratt say that while legal implications of competing separately for a follow-on A380 remain unclear, the earlier dissolution of the relationship with Rolls over the changed structure of the IAE V2500 partnership could provide a model for disengagement.

Airbus is warming to the idea of new engines for the A380, too. Timing heavily depends on the A330 decision, because Airbus would not like to tackle both programs concurrently. Emirates is pushing for new A380 engines. It placed a follow-up order for 50 aircraft last year, which will come in two batches. The order has not been tied to the engine decision, but industry sources say Emirates would like to get the second half of the order—due after 2020—with new powerplants. Shorter term, finding denser seat configurations is key. Williams sees potential for 40 more economy seats in an 11-abreast main deck configuration.

Williams says he does not want to “get sucked into doing a new wing” as part of the revamp. For the A380 in fact, there could be an argument for making the wing smaller because the current one was designed with a stretched aircraft in mind.