I don’t often pay close attention to engine problems, because they seem to happen with some regularity. By that, I mean that there are manufacturing or maintenance issues that disrupt regular operations in one way or another. I’m not talking about safety-of-flight problems, which would warrant a much closer look. But in the past week I’ve started paying closer attention to the problems facing Pratt & Whitney’s PW1000G engines, specifically the PW1100G variant. It’s not good.
The PW1000G is something of a marvel. The idea of a geared turbofan had been written off years ago for commercial service because of its complexity and the extra weight involved, but Pratt took on the challenge and created a geared turbofan that actually works really well. I’m not going to explain what a geared turbofan is, because that part of the engine is working beautifully and is not the issue. If you want to learn more about it, read here.
Today, the family powers three primary fleets:
- A320neo Family – PW1100G (about 40 percent with remainder powered by CFM LEAP)
- A220 – PW1500G
- Embraer E2 Family – PW1900G
Like all engines, the PW1000G family had teething issues, but many of those had been solved since they first went into service in 2016. That is… until this most recent, big problem surfaced that is primarily impacting the A320neo families powered by PW1100G engines.
Pratt had discovered an issue with contaminated powdered metal used in manufacturing between Q4 2015 and and Q3 2021 that could cause cracking in the stage 1 and stage 2 disks in the high pressure turbine. These obviously must be inspected at certain intervals to ensure there is no actual problem.
At first, Pratt said it knew the issue and all was fine; they’d just have to do the checks at regularly-scheduled maintenance visits. That was clearly not true.
On the company’s most recent earnings call in late July, it changed its tune. It said that by mid-September, 200 engines would need to be pulled out of service and inspected before regular visits. I assume this means they discovered cracking could lead to problematic results before regular maintenance checks even though the actual number of engines with cracking was small. Even the most minute risk was too much to let go. So, they had to move things up on the oldest engines.
Then beyond that, another 1,000 engines would need to be inspected in the following 9 to 12 months. The company assured investors that many of these inspections would be done during regular shop visits anyway. But then, the September 11 update came out.
That day, the company released an update with an even more concerning forecast. Now, there are an additional 600 to 700 shop visits required for inspection between 2023 and 2026. To be clear, this is above and beyond the original forecast. This means that Pratt expects an average of 350 airplanes to be on the ground through 2026 with the highest number coming in early 2024.
Let’s talk about these shop visits, because this is not like you can just lift a panel and see if something is good or not. No, in fact Pratt says that these shop visits take 250 to 300 DAYS to complete. I suppose the closest thing to good news that was released in this update was that beyond the PW1100Gs on the A320neo family, “other engine models currently are expected to be far less impacted.” So, hooray for that, if you believe Pratt at this point.
As you can imagine, this is very bad news for those airlines that chose the PW1100G over the CFM LEAP on their A320neo family fleets. Who is hit hardest? Well, let’s take a look, thanks to ch-aviation.
Current PW1100G Fleet Counts by Airline
This isn’t a list of all airlines but it’s those with the largest Pratt-powered A320 family fleets along with a few other US-based carriers for reference. What you can see here is that the most-highly impacted airlines are IndiGo, Spirit, Wizz, Volaris, and oh my Go First with most of its fleet impacted. In fact, Go First has blamed Pratt for putting the airline into bankruptcy, but that’s a whole different issue.
But let’s stay closer to home and look at Spirit in more detail. Spirit today has 85 A320neo family airplanes in the fleet. It had planned on having 7 of those grounded through year-end prior to this last update. That may not sound like a lot, but it’s a pretty big number of expensive airplanes not making money. And now that would seemingly have to climb higher.
At this point, I assume airlines have lost faith in Pratt’s guidance on the extent of this problem, and are just bracing for the worst. In the end, Pratt will have to pay up for this mess. It’s already planned a $3 billion write-down. But in the meantime, airlines will be scrambling to figure out what’s happening until firm plans are released.