Aero-engine firms keen on Sonic Cruiser prospects
By Bradley Perrett, European aerospace & defence correspondent
LE BOURGET, France, June 24 (Reuters) - Boeing Co's proposal for a high-speed airliner has sent the world's three major aero-engine firms rushing to their respective drawing boards, eyeing what could become a big opportunity for profit.
Since its unveiling at the Paris Air Show last week, engine makers United Technology Corp's Pratt & Whitney, Rolls-Royce Plc of Britain, and General Electric Co have all enthusiastically described potential engines for Boeing's Sonic Cruiser.
And each appears to be looking for a chance to outmaneuver the others, hoping to become the exclusive builder of engines for the plane, which would cruise 15 percent faster than conventional airliners.
"This is an all-out war and competition from the very beginning," said David Calhoun, the head of General Electric Aircraft Engines.
"I would love, of course, to push it to some exclusive arrangement (with Boeing)," he added.
Pratt & Whitney is excited by the potential sales volumes.
"Based on the customer reaction, I would say there is a lot of customer interest about the product," Pratt & Whitney President Louis Chenevert told Reuters.
"I think the volume could be very attractive. I think the volume could be a few thousand aircraft."
HIGH TECHNOLOGY AIRCRAFT
The Sonic Cruiser, as a very special aircraft might need very special engines. Certainly its engines would be enormously powerful, and all three companies are looking into developments of the biggest turbofans they have -- the ones supplied for the Boeing 777 twinjet.
But how much new technology are the engine companies willing to introduce, considering that even conventional aircraft power plants can cost $1 billion to develop?
"We are looking at the whole spectrum of conventional, even current, engines to much more avant-garde designs," John Cheffins, the chief operating officer of Rolls-Royce, told Reuters.
Cheffins would not describe those advanced concepts, but the British company has previously said it was investigating turbofans whose racing internal machinery would be suspended on electromagnets instead of the usual lubricated bearings, slashing friction.
Pratt is also looking at something a little different.
"The key I think is that Pratt is uniquely positioned in that it has technology," Chenevert said.
"It could be whole new concept engine," he said, adding that the company could instead develop something from its current PW4000 line.
Calhoun was more cautious, suggesting that GE would probably offer an engine with at least the power-generating core of its GE-90, currently the world's most powerful aero-engine.
"The odds that it is a modified GE-90 core are pretty high," he said.
The Sonic Cruiser, which Boeing has described to rapt airlines but has not yet launched, is a particularly attractive opportunity to the engine companies because it could give them greater production volumes for their 777 engines.
All three developed expensive big engines for the 777 in the early 1990s, but since they have shared the limited market for that aircraft, none has achieved high production volumes.
On the other hand, if Boeing demanded much advanced technology for a Sonic Cruiser engine then GE, Pratt and Rolls -- or whichever of them won the deal -- might see little advantage to their 777 programs.
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