Commercial airlines have been confronted with a complex situation this summer as they attempt to meet the surging demand for travel amidst labor shortages and supply chain constraints. However, these challenges have been exacerbated by the need for new inspections on a specific class of Airbus planes. Recent discoveries have indicated the possibility of microscopic “contamination” in the metals used to manufacture Pratt & Whitney engines, resulting in significant implications for airlines worldwide.
RTX, the parent company of Pratt & Whitney, issued a statement on July 25 explaining that a “significant portion” of the Airbus A320neo fleet would require accelerated removals and inspections within the next nine to 12 months. This unexpected hurdle in the form of quality control issues centered around a rare condition found in the powder metal used for manufacturing certain engine parts. It is important to note that company officials clarified that there is no immediate risk to flight safety. Despite the reassurances, the defect has the potential to impact approximately 1,200 Pratt engines produced between late 2015 and mid-2021, which translates to nearly 40% of the total produced during that time frame.
In response to the situation, Airbus acknowledged the issue and expressed their commitment to work alongside Pratt & Whitney and their customers to implement all necessary inspection plans. Concerned parties, including the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), have been in contact with Pratt & Whitney and the affected US-based operators to ensure appropriate measures are taken. However, even with these efforts, airlines find themselves scrambling for detailed information amidst an already strained operating environment.
Pratt & Whitney plans to initiate inspections on 200 jets by mid-September, but there is no clear indication of the duration required for these inspections. The grounding of aircraft will largely depend on the availability of maintenance personnel, which is presently limited due to ongoing labor shortages. Furthermore, while Pratt could potentially replace engines with newer versions to expedite the process, supply chain disruptions have impeded the company’s output capabilities. These manufacturing limitations present yet another obstacle in resolving the issue promptly.
Discount US carrier Spirit Airlines faces a significant impact as up to 13 of their engines will need to be checked. As a result, the airline intends to temporarily remove seven jets from service after Labor Day. This decision is particularly challenging for Spirit Airlines, as they possess the most affected Airbus A320neo planes and the highest number built within the relevant period. With approximately 80 of these planes in their fleet, the airline estimates that at least 10 aircraft will be out of service for the majority of 2024. Chief Executive Ted Christie expressed his frustration with this development and emphasized that it compounds the technical issues Spirit has already faced with their fleet. While Pratt has committed to reimbursing Spirit for the problem, the details and timelines of these reimbursements remain uncertain.
Hawaiian Airlines also grapples with the impact as all 18 of their Airbus A320neo planes received contain engines manufactured during the specified period. Chief Executive Peter Ingram revealed that even before RTX’s announcement in July, Hawaiian faced challenges due to engine shortages, resulting in the grounding of five out of their 18 jets during the peak of the problem. The airline had anticipated a maximum of two aircraft being out of service in the coming months, gradually reducing to one by the fourth quarter. However, the latest Pratt announcement has prompted a reassessment of the situation, and the airline is now considering potential schedule adjustments to mitigate any aircraft shortages.
JetBlue, another carrier operating Airbus A320neo planes, has not yet provided an assessment of the impact arising from the Pratt inspections. The company is currently evaluating the long-term implications in collaboration with Pratt & Whitney. Other airlines expected to be affected include Lufthansa, Delta, Indigo, Air New Zealand, Wizz Air, and Volaris.
Despite the multifaceted challenges airlines face, industry expert Michel Merluzeau does not anticipate Airbus severing ties with Pratt & Whitney as a supplier. He believes this issue is isolated, and the comprehensive inspections and potential engine replacements will ultimately restore confidence in the A320neo fleet.
The intricacies surrounding the quality control issue with Pratt & Whitney engines for Airbus A320neo planes have created significant challenges for commercial airlines. With labor shortages, supply chain constraints, and limited maintenance capacities, carriers have been forced to grapple with these additional complexities. The proactive collaboration between industry stakeholders and manufacturers is vital in resolving these issues promptly and ensuring the long-term safety and reliability of commercial flights.