Inflight shutdowns

Engine troubles bedevil newest Airbus jets

A320neo
Airbus would like to put A320neo engine problems behind it. Source: dpa

In its heated competition with US rival Boeing, the European aircraft maker Airbus has been banking on a relatively new, more economical version of its workhorse A320 passenger jet to win airline orders. But a problem with its American-made engines has led to a number of inflight incidents and aborted takeoffs, prompting European authorities to place restrictions on the affected planes.

The problem plane is the A320neo, which designates the planes with “new engine option.” The narrow-body jet uses two jet engines manufactured by Pratt & Whitney, a Hartford, Connecticut-based subsidiary of United Technologies. The engines are supposed to burn 16 percent less fuel and have lower maintenance costs than previous engines.

But since the beginning of the year, there have been four reported incidents involving A320neos fitted with a new version of the Pratt & Whitney PW1100G engine. The Indian startup airline IndiGo has been forced to ground three A320s after incidents of engine shut down while in flight.

Occurrences of engine inflight shutdown and rejected takeoff have been reported.

The problems prompted the European Aviation Safety Authority to issue what it calls an “Emergency Airworthiness Directive” about the planes. “Several occurrences of engine inflight shutdown and rejected takeoff have been reported on certain Airbus A320neo family airplanes,” the agency said. It added that while investigators try to determine the exact cause of the problem, preliminary findings indicate the issue is with a high-pressure compressor in the engine.

According to the directive, on planes where both engines are of the new type of Pratt & Whitney jet, the aircraft can make only three flights and then must change both engines for different models. On planes in which only one of the two engines is the new model, the aircraft can’t be used for long distance flights unless there are sufficient airports for emergency landings along the route, a measure not likely to instill confidence among passengers.

Pratt & Whitney said in a statement that later this week it would present a “proposed mitigation plan” to deal with the problem, which it described as a “knife edge seal” on the high pressure compressor.

It said that there are 43 engines potentially impacted by the problem installed on 32 jetliners, including 21 planes with one engine having the problematic seal and 11 with both engines affected. Another 55 engines have been delivered to Airbus for installation on new planes.

The Pratt & Whitney engines have been a constant issue for Airbus. Shortly after the A320neo’s launch in September, 2014, the engines were reported to have a cooling problem. Pilots had to let the engines idle for several minutes before takeoff.

Another problem emerged in the fan suspension, sagging slightly so that there was a danger the blades might touch the engine casing with catastrophic results.

The issues with the engines caused such a maintenance problem that at one point last year there were 60 planes parked at Airbus facilities getting serviced. While the problems with the engines are not caused by Airbus, the company is taking heat from critics over the design flaws.

When Airbus presents its results on Thursday, analysts will be looking to see if the A320neo problems have impacted the company’s bottom line. Airbus said that as of January, it had 6,005 firm orders for planes configured with new engine option.

Jens Koenen leads Handelsblatt’s coverage of the aviation and IT industry and is bureau chief of the Frankfurt office. This articles was adapted into English by Charles Wallace, an editor for Handelsblatt Global in New York. To contact the author: koenen@handelsblatt.com.

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