Low fuel prices and more airplanes in the air are taking us into a new golden age for aviation, according to the mood here at the 2017 Paris Air Show, which starts on Monday. Data from the International Air Transportation Association (IATA) trade group show that the global passenger volume will grow by 7.4 percent in 2017 and the number of planes will increase by 3.8 percent. The typical aircraft is also more than 80 percent full on average. IATA projects total airline profits at $30 billion this year.
All of this is good news to industry executives like David Joyce, who runs GE Aviation, and Gaël Méheust, president and CEO of CFM International, a 50-50 joint-venture between GE and France’s Safran Aircraft Engines. “We are eyeballing $15 billion in new business, engines and services,” between GE and CFM, Joyce said at the Paris Air Show on Monday. Joyce said GE Aviation and its engine partners will deliver 10,000 engines between 2016 and 2020. He also said that GE Aviation’s engines and services backlog now exceeds $150 billion.
While Joyce’s business is focusing on making engines for long-haul planes like Boeing’s Dreamliner and the new 777X wide-body jet, Méheust’s company is producing engines for the fastest-growing market segment — single-aisle planes like the Boeing 737 MAX, Airbus A320neo and China’s COMAC C919 jets. Just this year through May, CFM received orders for more than 1,190 engines valued at $16.5 billion. The company has a total backlog of more than 14,500 engines. “This represents eight years of production at current levels,” Méheust said on Saturday.
CFM’s new LEAP engines, which include 3D-printed fuel nozzles and parts from space-age ceramic composites, represent the bulk of the backlog. The company has received more than 12,500 orders for the engines, which are 15 percent more fuel efficient than their CFM predecessors as a result of their revolutionary design. This is important because fuel costs still represent about 20 percent of airlines’ overall costs.
The number of LEAP-powered planes also is climbing steadily. CFM is on track to deliver 500 LEAP engines this year, and planes powered by them have already carried more than 5 million passengers for 15 airlines on five continents, including Pegasus, AirAsia, easyJet, Frontier, Malindo Air, CitiLink, WOW air, SAS, Azul, Avianca, Interjet, Air India, Vistara, Sri Lankan, and Virgin America. The annual production rate will rise to 2,000 engines by 2020.
The 69 Airbus and Boeing planes with LEAP engines currently in service fly on average for more than 10 hours a day, achieving 96 percent utilization, another important airline metric. “An airplane in service is an airplane making money,” says Allen Paxson, the executive vice president of CFM.
Airlines can work the engines so hard in part because the company is using a “digital thread” to collect and analyze data spanning development, production and service. GE says that apps running on Predix, the company software for the industrial internet, are already monitoring some 35,000 jet engines. Software helps better predict when individual engines need service, among other things. “It’s like going to the doctor,” he says. “The digital thread gives you the ability to forecast and make a prediction. Our ability to predict is much, much better today than it was five years ago.”
But “one of the most talked-about features” of the engine among pilots is the noise — or the lack of it — Paxson says. “The airplanes show up and [pilots] are quite surprised by how quiet they are both in the cockpit and the cabin.” For passengers, “you notice you are taking off because of the angle of the aircraft and the force pushing you back into your seat,” he says. “But you can still chat with your neighbor.