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Replacing the Workhorses

Special Report - And Now for Something Completely Different

The next generation of single-aisle workhorses—replacing the Airbus A320 family and the Boeing 737—will be crucial to the development of the industry.

Delta CEO Richard Anderson is among those who have said that a next-generation narrowbody needs to be developed. “We really need clear guidance from the manufacturers about what their intentions are in terms of innovation,” he says.

The latest Airbus market forecast predicts that almost 17,900 single-aisle aircraft worth $1,274 billion will be delivered in the next 20 years. The large quantity, which equates to nearly 70% of total aircraft orders, is being driven by Asia-Pacific growth, low-cost carriers, and increased route liberalization.

“The single-aisle sector is particularly strong, and our A320neo meets this future demand by providing our customers with the latest innovations and technologies while maintaining maximum commonality,” says John Leahy, Airbus Chief Operating Officer.

The A320neo is not a new design, however. Due for entry into service in 2016, it will simply offer two new engines, the CFM International LEAP-X or Pratt & Whitney’s PurePower PW1100G geared turbofan. There will be minor modifications to the airframe but little in the way of revolutionary development.

 Airbus is touting “up to” 15% improvement in efficiency, which means a single aircraft will generate savings of up to 3,600 tonnes of CO2 a year, plus lower operating costs. The aircraft’s range will increase by 500 nautical miles (950 kilometers), equivalent to two tonnes more payload.

It will be 2025 before an all-new A320-type is in the shop window, however. Leahy says it is more difficult to achieve significant economies on smaller aircraft, as opposed to larger models. For example, it is hard to scale down work on composites because the aircraft’s ‘skin’ would become too thin. The technology simply isn’t ready for a big leap forward.

Manufacturing techniques

Meanwhile, Boeing is analyzing its options for the next version of the 737. It is thought that the Y1 design—as the project is reportedly called—will use as much as it can of 787 technology, but it could feature a twin-aisle in a 2-3-2 seating formation. There may even be two distinct aircraft types in response to airline needs for different seat numbers.

Aside from more obvious questions about market requirements and new engine developments, the manufacturer is also studying how a new design can be produced efficiently with existing space, people, methods, and tooling, according to Bret Jensen of Boeing Commercial Aircraft Engineering Communications. “A decision about the 737 replacement is coming,” he says.

An MIT research team has designed a potential 737 replacement, which reverts to engines at rear of fuselage. This takes in air disturbed by the fuselage known as boundary layer ingestion and results in lower fuel use for the same amount of thrust. Previous practical problems, such as engine stress, can be overcome with new techniques including smaller tails and longer, thinner wings. The plane would travel slower but could offer 70% less fuel burn.

New competitors

Meanwhile, from 2013 there will be a new competitor on the market in the form of the Bombardier CSeries. Although aimed at markets covered by A318/9-size aircraft, the project could easily be scaled up. Over a 2,700-nautical mile sector, Bombardier quotes a fuel-burn figure of 2.2 liters per passenger per 100 kilometers for the CS300 and the CS100 ER in comparison with a figure of 3.4 liters for a Smartcar with one passenger.

Embraer’s E-Jets will also be part of the market as airlines look to right size narrowbody routes in order to optimize load factors. So far, some 900 firm orders have been logged and there are 700 jets in operation. Worldwide they have accumulated 4.8 million flight hours and transported more than 200 million passengers.

There will also be a new entrant to the market in the form of the Chinese‑built Comac C919. This is expected to begin testing in 2014 and will make its first commercial flight two years later. So far, Comac has announced orders for 55 aircraft, mainly from Chinese carriers.

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