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Airbus in Mobile unaffected by engine supply problem, so far

A jet engine with its inlet cowl is loaded onto a truck at UTC Aerospace in Foley, bound for the Airbus assembly line in Mobile. (Courtesy of UTC Aerospace Systems)

Could a shortage of next-generation engines cause grief for Airbus in Mobile, as it already has in Europe?

The answer appears to be that in the short term it won’t, and in a best-case scenario it never will. But right now there’s no guarantee of a best-case scenario.

At its Final Assembly Line in Mobile, Airbus builds and delivers several models from its A320 single-aisle jetliner family. Globally, customers can order their jets with Conventional Engine Options (ceo) or with advanced models the company calls New Engine Options (neo). Compared to an A320ceo, an A320neo should have better fuel efficiency and other gains.

There are two neo engine suppliers bringing complex new powerplants to the market. Both have had some introductory issues, and in one case – Pratt & Whitney’s PW1000 family – those issues have been troublesome enough to slow production to the point where it has caused grief for Airbus over the course of the last year. In Europe, at least, the company has expressed frustration about having to delay deliveries.

In April, Airbus Chief Financial Officer Harald Wilhelm sounded off, saying that Pratt & Whitney’s “actually demonstrated performance right now is not satisfactory.” The company seemed to be “going in the right direction” on fixes, but in the meantime production delays on engines were affecting deliveries and profits at Airbus. In May, the CEO of Air Lease Corporation said his company was “very disturbed” about Airbus delivery delays.

A few years into the future, people may look back and decide the ruckus was no big deal. The Pratt & Whitney engines are radical in that they put a gearbox between the big fan on the front of the engine and the smaller compressor fans at its heart, so they can spin at different speeds. That was a huge technological challenge – the manufacturer says it took 20 years and a $10 billion investment to pull off – but it pays off in significantly better economy and greatly reduced noise. Those are very desirable qualities, as illustrated by Pratt & Whitney’s claim to have 8,000 engine orders in hand.

No one seems to be saying the new technology is the problem. Instead there have been issues with bearing seals, the fine details of combustion chambers, and the challenge of manufacturing enough of certain high-tech fan blades. The production delays are a real problem, but a writer at MRO-network.com, a site serving the aerospace maintenance and repair industry said the knowledge gained in fixing the problems will pay off in the long run. It’s “a real-world shakedown” of a new design with a long life ahead of it, the article suggests.

But what does it all mean for Mobile? Potentially a lot, in a worst-case scenario.

Later this year, Airbus executives expect to see the Final Assembly Line in Mobile hit a target rate of four jets per month. Here’s how it all comes together.

The Mobile FAL hasn’t built its first neo jet yet. It’s still ramping up to meet its production goal of four jets per month, a target that company leaders plan to hit later this year. (Airbus announced Monday that a Mobile-built A321 delivered on Friday brought the total number of Airbus aircraft in service in North America to a new high of 1,500.)

Kristi Tucker, director of communications for Airbus Americas, said the Mobile FAL will receive components for its first neo jet toward the end of 2017, meaning it will be delivered sometime in 2018. From there, the FAL will begin building more and more A321neos and A320neos.

So far there’s no sign of a problem, and there’s time for Pratt & Whitney to get up to speed. But there’s no question the pressure is on.

“We’ve said since the beginning we’ll eventually go all neo,” Tucker said.

An 80,000-square foot expansion at UTC Aerospace in Foley was quiet and mostly empty, but company officials said they don’t expect it to stay that way long as it fills with some of the most sophisticated jet engines in the world and 260 new jobs helping prepare them for flight.

Another place where the potential problem could hit home is across Mobile Bay in Foley, Ala. Pratt & Whitney is a division of United Technologies. In Foley another division, UTC Aerospace Systems, has been building up all the engines used at the Mobile FAL. As engines come in, Foley workers add inlet cowls, fan cowls and thrust reversers – “everything that wraps around the engine,” as one executive put it – and then hands them over to Airbus.

So far it has just been handling ceo engines for Airbus. But company officials recently dedicated a major new expansion designed specifically to build up neo engines. They’ve projected it will add 260 new jobs to the facility.

“There’s a huge ramp rate coming for the A320neo program,” Mike Grondalski, vice president for UTC Aerospace Systems’ aerostructures division, said in August. “There will be a lot of work coming very quickly.”

That’s assuming the engines themselves come in quickly. But the expansion wasn’t expected to be fully operational until year’s end – so, just as at the Mobile FAL, there’s no immediate demand for neo engines. The shortage hasn’t hit home, and maybe it never will.

Pratt and Whitney has been developing fixes for the technical problems, and the company recently celebrated an expansion at a factory in Lansing, Mich., that should triple production there of the scarce fan blades.

A request for comment from UTC Aerospace was pending.

Meanwhile Pratt & Whitney hasn’t had a monopoly on neo engine problems. The other neo manufacturer is CFM, and it’s also had a challenge or two with its LEAP-1 engines – though those problems haven’t been bad enough to impact the production schedule.

CFM is a partnership between General Electric and the France-based aerospace company Safran. And Mobile officials recently announced with great fanfare that Safran will be establishing a presence at the Mobile Aeroplex at Brookley.

A press release from Safran leaves little doubt about where all this is heading. Safran, a partner in CFM, builds up LEAP-1 engines in Colomiers, France, to serve Airbus production lines in Toulouse. It has a new German facility doing the same thing for Airbus’ FAL in Hamburg. So naturally it plans to do the same “on Alabama’s Gulf Coast, home to the newest final assembly factory for the A320 jetliner production line.”

That same Safran release describes Airbus’ switch to neo engines for its A320 family as “one of the fastest production ramp-ups in aviation history.”

With that as context, maybe a few bumps in the process are only to be expected. And the situation illustrates something else as well: Mobile isn’t just a place that happens to have an Airbus factory. It’s a city, and a region, where the multi-billion-dollar ups and downs of the global aerospace industry can have very real effects.

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