Engine woes

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DGCA’s decision to ground A320neo aircraft with Pratt & Whitney engines is not surprising

India’s IndiGo and GoAir must have thought that they were taking a massive step into the future when they acquired their new A320neo aircraft. These planes were powered by a revolutionary new engine by American engine-maker Pratt & Whitney called the Geared Turbofan or GTF in short. Aircraft engines have become incredibly efficient and the GTF was supposed to take that efficiency to another level, with almost 15 per cent more fuel efficiency, along with some other changes, including new lightweight materials. The A320neo was to give the popular A320 aircraft family a new lease of life, more than three decades after the plane was first introduced by European plate-maker Airbus. With fuel comprising almost half of an airline’s expenses and with Indian and global airlines suffering through the days of expensive fuel in the earlier part of this decade, these new fuel efficient aircraft promised better margins on flights and, thus, better profits.

However, IndiGo and GoAir found out to their cost that often introducing revolutionary new technology in aviation can be beset with teething troubles. Boeing’s revolutionary Dreamline suffered severe issues when it entered production. But the Dreamliner is not built in the numbers that the A320 family is built, over 60 Airbus A320 family aircraft are delivered every month. Airbus and Pratt & Whitney had hoped that much of that production would have quickly moved to the A320neo. However, the GTF had severe issues while being developed and those gremlins did not seem to have gone when IndiGo and GoAir took delivery of their planes powered by the GTF. Airbus usually offers a choice of engines on their aircraft, and the A320neo’s of Air India and Vistara use engines from CFM International called the LEAP, which while a little less efficient than the GTF, apparently has been operating without hiccups on those two airlines. The other two large airlines — Jet Airways and SpiceJet — use the American Boeing 737 which also have engines by CFM International, but the four airlines that use the A320neo have bet heavily on it, between them taking over 70 of the new aircraft.

IndiGo is the world’s largest operator of the A320neo and India has the largest number of these aircraft in their civil fleet. So the Director General of Civil Aviation’s decision to ground the GTF powered A320neo will have a major impact on IndiGo and GoAir disproportionately. For Indigo, a fifth of their planes are A320neo’s and for GoAir, the number is 40 per cent. While the DGCA might give a small exemption to the airlines for limited operations, as the European Civil Aviation administrator has done, there is no doubt that the A320’s botched engine has led to huge problems for these two airlines and Pratt & Whitney has apparently been paying huge compensatory fines to these airlines. But for the harried passenger waiting for his/her flight, hearing of the inevitable cancellations and delays would be unacceptable and expect tempers to be frayed at airports because passengers will not care that their cancellation has happened due to an engine-related grounding. While airlines will try and resolve the issue with leased foreign aircraft, it is strange that India’s explosive air traffic growth has been held up, thanks a seal that is degrading faster than expected.

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