As high-volume shippers continue to snap up cargo pallet space on widebody freighters, MRO demand for the engines powering those aircraft is significant. That is particularly true of GE Aviation’s CF6 family, a leader in widebody propulsion, with more than 10,000 engines produced through year-end 2018 since the CF6-6 entered service on the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 in 1971. 

More than 3,600 units are in service, including 1,135 CF6-80C2s and 295 CF6-80E1s, which are in current production, along with the CF6-80CK1F, which powers the Kawasaki C-2 military transport, according to Scott Brensike, GE Aviation’s general manager for the CF6 product line. Taking the CF6 family as a whole, some 90% are on commercial airliners. “As a result, the in-service fleet size is increasing year over year,” Brensike says. 

To illustrate, he says that GE shipped 42 CF6-80C2s in 2018, along with 14 CF6-80E1s and four CF6-80CK1Fs. “We have increased production for the past two years and project 20% yearly growth in demand through 2021, when we could be producing over 100 engines,” Brensike says. “The utilization rate and MRO market for these engines will continue to be very strong, with retirements of older aircraft countered by demand for good, mature widebody passenger and freighter aircraft, and feedstock for passenger-to-freighter conversions, as well as continuing production for current and potential new applications.”

Cargo, in fact, is what Brensike terms “a great tail wind” for the CF6-80C2, driving production rates upward, along with more freighter conversions of passenger 767s. This will extend engine service lives by 15 or more years, he predicts.

At the same time, the uptick in cargo shipments is enabling the return to service of 747 freighters that were in storage, as well as extending the lives of Airbus A300, and A310 and McDonnell Douglas MD-10 and MD-11 fleets. “Given that we have CF6-6-powered MD-10s in service with FedEx, which will be 48 years old this year, we expect that the CF6-80 fleet will be flying well past 2050,” Brensike remarks.

Underscoring its commitment to the fleet’s longevity, GE introduced a performance improvement program (PIP) in 2015 for the CF6-80C2 and CF6-80E1. The PIP includes fan, high-pressure turbine (HPT) and high-pressure compressor (HPC) flow path and efficiency improvements, which have enhanced fuel efficiency. “Since 2015, all CF6-80C2 and CF6-80E1 engines have been produced with the PIP improvements, for a total of more than 260 engines,” he says, adding that the hardware used for the CF6-80C2 and CF6-80E1 PIP is retrofittable at overhaul.

Major MRO shops that maintain the CF6 family are seeing similar trends to those cited by the OEM.

Hans-Dieter Reimann, director of engine programs at MTU Maintenance in Germany, says CF6 engines—both the CF6-50 and -80C2 variants—accounted for more than 80 repair and overhaul shop visits at the MRO’s facility in 2018. For the CF-80C2, in fact, this represented an increase in shop visits of nearly 33% over 2017. “Over the past couple of years, there has been increased demand for MRO on the CF-80C2, due to the rise in freighter capacity demand and the lower retirement rate of aircraft that use this engine type because of lower fuel costs,” he points out.

On a cautionary note, Reimann says that due to high demand for CF6-80C2 maintenance, capacity for that engine type has become very tight worldwide. Because of this, he says, MTU “intends to add capability and  capacity in the near future” for the engine at its Vancouver facility in Canada, to give the MRO greater flexibility for engine inductions. Currently, all of MTU’s CF6-80C2 work is carried out in Hannover, Germany.

More capacity for CF6-80C2 work, Reimann notes, is slated to become available this year as MTU winds down its CF6-50 business after 40 years.

He agrees that air cargo carriers have become an important customer base, now accounting for one-fourth of its CF6-80C2 business. “We expect this share to grow in the future, as the 767 is certainly a cargo workhorse and newly built freighters are still being delivered,” he points out. “The increase in e-commerce should also have a stabilizing effect on the market.”

Asked about any repair developments at MTU to improve its performance, Reimann says that since the CF6 family is in the latter stage of its life cycle, it already has received modifications over the years and is considered a very reliable engine. “Our R&D work focuses largely on repair development, including processes that are not engine-specific and include, for instance, erosion or thermal barrier coatings,” he explains. “Such high-tech repairs can reduce scrap rates, increase time on wing and bring considerable cost benefits.”

As with MTU, Standard Aero anticipates continued growth with its CF6 MRO business. The Scottsdale, Arizona-headquartered company offers 1,926 repairs on rotating and stationary parts on the CF6-6, -50, -80A, -80C and 80E at its Cincinnati component repair location. However, according to Joe Nolte, vice president for component MRO, most of the repairs “now exist for the CF6-80C2 and the CF6-80E1, at 897 and 314,” respectively.

“Within the repair business, Standard Aero has seen increased repair demand for the CF6 family, driven primarily by the -50, -80C and -80E,” he says. “The majority of the repairs have been in support of the -80C, followed by the -80E and -50. However, demand for repairs on the -80C is 3-4 times that of the -80E, and the -50.” Nolte also points out there is continued interest in CF6-80A component service, although it is small. He says repair demand for the CF6-6 is “minimal.”

In that regard, Nolte explains that projections call for CF6-50 and -80A shop visits to continue to decline, with  -80C shop visits remaining flat, and the -80E trending slightly upward over the next few years. In reality, he says, repair demand for all four models has increased over the last 4-5 years. “This isn’t necessarily contradictory, as the material in the market available for repair will increase as engines come out of service,” he stresses. “Repair demand can continue to go up, as that material is consumed in future shop visits.”

Nolte adds that there is no single driver for the growth mode in the CF6 MRO market. “Barring any unusual economic or geopolitical change, the expectation is that the CF6 repair demand will continue to grow over the next 3-5 years,” he says. “Fuel has been cheap and economies stable. Flying older, depreciated assets that are reliable and relatively fuel-efficient makes financial sense. The mix between the models may change, but in total, demand should remain strong,  with the -80C being the largest contributor.”

Not everyone has such a bullish view of the CF6-80C2 MRO market. Clemens Caspar Geercken, head of product sales engine services in the Americas for Lufthansa Technik, says the number of inductions of the CF6-80 family into the company’s Hamburg shop this year will remain in the double digits, but on what he calls “more or less the same level as 2018,” he says.

“CF6-80 engines are part of a mature fleet which is expected to retire significantly within the next years. For the CF6-80C2, that fleet is expected to decrease from approximately 2,800 in 2019 to 1,600 in 2028,” says Geercken, citing ICF data for 2019. This, he explains, translates into an expected decrease in shop visits over the next 10 years to 300 annually by 2028 from approximately 490 this year. Most are coming from Boeing 747-400 and 767 and MD-11F operators, with a few continuing to come from the A300/A310 community.

“Whether the engine fleet or the demand for engine shop visits will really drop at exactly this pace strongly depends on economic factors like oil prices, economic growth and global political stability,” Geercken stresses. “Of course, we will continue to offer services for mature engines—not just the CF6-80—to find an optimal work scope, optimize residual value and life of the engine, as well as utilization of the engine itself.”