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Business

Airbus unveils new A320 engines as Rolls-Royce enters damage control

Airbus is offering its medium-sized A320 aircraft with a new range of engines designed to reduce fuel consumption. Meanwhile, Qantas says it may sue Rolls-Royce for damages over a defect on one of its A380 superjumbos.

An airbus engine

Efficient engines are vital to airlines' business models

With jet fuel prices expected to rise in coming years, Airbus has announced it will offer its medium-sized A320 aircraft with next-generation engines capable of reducing fuel consumption by 15 percent.

Airlines buying the new A320 variation can choose to have their aircraft equipped with engines manufactured by either CFM International or Pratt & Whitney. That leaves Rolls-Royce out of the loop as it deals with the aftermath of an incident that saw one of its Trent 900 engines catch fire during a Qantas A380 superjumbo flight in November.

Qantas says it will consider legal options against Rolls-Royce for the "financial and operational impacts" caused by the fire, after which the aircraft landed safely. Qantas' six A380 aircraft were grounded November 4. Two are now back in operational service.

According to Klaus-Heiner Roehl, of the Cologne Institute for Economic Research, engines are a key component to the economic model of airlines. The Rolls-Royce engine failure has far-reaching consequences for Qantas, he said.

"There are certain routes they had planned to use this aircraft on, which they can't service for the time being," Roehl told Deutsche Welle. "And the image damage isn't confined to Rolls-Royce. Qantas has to suffer from it as well, although it wasn't their fault. There are interconnected problems for the airlines as well."

But carriers can generally choose between two engines when they buy planes. While Lufthansa chose Rolls-Royce engines for its A380 fleet, Air France and Emirates chose turbines made by Engine Alliance, a group including General Electric and Pratt & Whitney.

The engine blowout could be very bad news for Rolls-Royce, as airlines are now more likely to order from Engine Alliance in future, Roehl said.

A A380 engine being maintained

Modern aircraft and jet engines are incredibly complex

Efficient aircraft vital

Efficiency is something all airlines strive for, but Roehl said technical problems can arise if manufacturers "are too ambitious in their plans."

He sees Airbus' plan to begin offering its A320 model with new engines beginning in 2016 as sensible.

"It's a very good aircraft which sells well, and of course one doesn't want to break that by saying it's outdated," he said. "One undertakes specific improvements."

Eddie Pieniazek, head of consulting at Ascend Worldwide in London, said the increasing technical complexity of aircraft means engine malfunctions like the one on board the Qantas A380 aren't uncommon. "It's a very high profile aircraft, and a high-profile airline… and (the incident) therefore caught the imagination of everyone," he said.

Efficient engines are key to a successful airline when one considers that the price of fuel cost was near 25 dollars per barrel during the 1990s and spiked to nearly 150 dollars a barrel in 2008.

"Airlines had gotten very used to having a stable figure for their fuel cost within their expense equation," Pieniazek told Deutsche Welle. "Once we started to see those rising fuel prices, the airlines suddenly realized how vulnerable they were to such a variable in their cost structure. And I think a lot of them started to adapt a focus on having the most fuel efficient aircraft types, because that enables them to counter those kinds of shocks that can happen."

According to Pieniazek it's simply impossible to make an outdated aircraft economically viable with today's fuel prices. Hence the drive to incorporate ultramodern technology and drive down fuel consumption.

"You can see today in the market place that manufacturers are producing record numbers of aircraft, despite the fact that we've gone through a downturn, because it's the right aircraft that's going forward," he said.

Author: Gerhard Schneibel
Editor: Sam Edmonds

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