LONDON – General Electric’s (GE) 50-50 joint company with SAFRAN emerged at a time where competition in an emerging engine war opened up a large market commercially.
Despite the repercussions of the Great Financial Crash of 2008, signing this contract proved to be very beneficial as was seen in the years ahead with the emergence of the Boeing 737 MAX and Airbus A320neo.
This article will look at GE’s involvement with the CFM project and how this helped shape the industry we have seen over the past few years when it comes to aircraft orders and powering options.
Where The Deal All Began…
Rewind back to 1970, in the Spring climates being offered in the City of Boston. Representatives of SAFRAN, also known as Snecma until 2005, headed to the Ritz-Carlton lounge in the city to court GE Aviation, ironically out of potential love, given the normal tradition of French romanticism.
But as GE Aviation recall it, it seemed like more of a cut to the chase kind of perspective. They said:
“Let’s get together and produce an offspring—a new turbofan engine in the 20,000-pound thrust class to compete in the booming jetliner industry. (Kennedy, 2019)”.
And of course, that proposal, which was only ascertained over a couple of drinks in the Ritz-Carlton changed everything. Drinks turned into dinner, with GE lawyers eventually taking part in more discussions.
Of course, there were political ramifications which caused a delay on the approval of the deal.
In 1972, President Richard Nixon rejected the export license application of the deal, which was pertinent to the engine cores for the F101, with “George Schultz, the treasury secretary at the time, [claiming] the license would hand critical, U.S-funded technology to a foreign government years before the F101 engine could enter service on the B-1 Bomber” (ibid).
Both GE and SAFRAN were very eager to get this deal done. The French President Georges Pompidou gave the venture significant support, especially to Nixon at trade talks in Iceland, with GE also offering the “U.S Government royalty payments of $20,000 for each CFM56 sold for several years” (ibid).
Around four years later after handling “negotiations, strategic planning, and insuperable U.S government hurdles”, the “two companies eventually consummated the deal, creating CFM International” as Nixon eventually granted the export license (ibid).
As GE said plainly, once that deal was established, “the floodgates opened” (ibid). By 1985, the CFM56 engine, which they opened applications with, secured the ability to power McDonnell Douglas DC-8’s, Boeing KC-135R tankers with the U.S Air Force to Boeing 737s and Airbus A320s.
And in the theme of French love, even Pierre Fabre, a retired CFM President referred to the partnerships as “a long marriage”.
“There have always been ups and downs between us, like any couple, but we have always been on the same mission. And we have worked very hard to stay humble while being so very successful” (ibid).
The Emerging Engine War
It could be said that GE & SAFRAN renewed its vows at the Farnborough Air Show in July 2008, when “the emerging engine war to power the next generation of single-aisle jetliners”, was hotting up (Kennedy 2019a p. 198).
This all came from the constant aggressive competitive moves produced by competitor Pratt & Whitney, where it created “a tsunami of publicity around the development of its geared turbofan”, as well as launching it on the Bombardier C-Series, the Mitsubishi regional jet as well as taking on GE Aviation & SAFRAN in “a head-on battle against CFM to power future Airbus and Boeing single-aisle jetliners” (ibid).
This forced CFM to finally speak out and make its move. On the Sunday morning before the air show, before parties announced the following:
- An Agreement to Extend the CFM Joint Company through to the Year 2040.
- The launch of the LEAP-X engine, which at the time had no aircraft application.
- The establishment of a single CFM engine services company to support future CFM engines.
The renewal of the deal came an early four years before the deal was due to expire. At that point, a CFM Executive by the name of Bill Clapper stated that it brought “stability and protection to the partnership for a very long time” (ibid).
“We also felt it was a broadside at IAE [International Aero Engines] and improved our competitive position.”
This is referring to the spanner in the works of IAE, which is a consortium of Pratt & Whitney and Rolls-Royce where Pratt’s “geared turbofan engine concept [was] not supported by Rolls-Royce, which is independently pursuing a more traditional turbofan design in its separate talks with Airbus and Boeing”, offering the view that “P&W and Rolls-Royce are moving in different directions” (ibid, p. 199).
“In talking with customers around the globe, it became so clear that long-term CFM viability is extremely important,” says David Joyce, who was named GE Aviation president and CEO two weeks before the show. “The GE and Safran relationship is the strongest it has ever been” (ibid).
Such a success has been seen as a result of the partnership extension made in July 2008, which has benefitted both GE and SAFRAN on a 50-50 basis.
The joint venture, in terms of delivery numbers, has been increasingly positive. In 47 years, CFM has delivered over 30,700 engines to 570 different operators, and still has 13,700 in the backlog. Such a backlog represents over $170bn in revenue still to be captured.
Delivery numbers have been strong across the CFM network too:
- 2017 – 1,900 engines delivered, of which 459 were LEAPs.
- 2019 – 2,127 engines delivered, of which 1,736 were LEAPs.
Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in lower delivery numbers, representing around 746 engines in 2020, of which 622 were LEAPs and 123 were CFM56s.
But what we can ascertain through 2017 up to 2019, especially when A320neo and Boeing 737 MAX production got underway, is that numbers went through the roof.
This of course has been testament to the manufacturer’s continuation in providing robust engines, which have provided significant reliability, offering turnaround times of 25 minutes and a 99.98% dispatch reliability rating on the LEAP engine (CFM, 2021).
While the Pratt & Whitney engine issues with the A320neo may have worked out well in CFM’s favor, there is still work to do regarding the maintenance of that competitive edge.
P&W believes that despite the rocky start the engine may have had, that it can still acquire a firm grasp of the engine market, especially with P&W president Robert Leduc stating that 10,000 engines will be delivered by 2025 (Kjelgaard, 2018).
However, such a success on the LEAP program is continuing to be seen, even in 2021, with Scandinavian Airlines back in February signing a deal with CFM for “LEAP-1A engines to power 35 additional A320neo family aircraft” (CFM, 2021a).
The $2.9 billion order also offers what CFM call Rate Per Flight Hour where there is a “guarantee [in] maintenance costs for the airlines 160 LEAP-1A engines on a dollar per engine flight hour basis. (ibid)”
This is something that will of course attract airlines to select the likes of CFM, especially with maintenance being an expensive element of running an airline, particularly during a pandemic when aircraft are grounded.
As seen in previous articles on the GE Mini-Series, there has been a particular pattern so far when it comes to engine manufacturing. And that is the fact that GE Aviation time, and time again have positioned themselves correctly into the right situations, even if that means hanging around the Ritz-Carlton for drinks.
The CFM company is one of the many important programmes under the GE wing, as the focus will continue on making more fuel efficient engines, particularly in a climate where environmental sustainability is becoming more of a bigger issue.
With the continuing success of the A320neo and 737 MAX on the orderbook perspective, it will be very likely that such a backlog will increase, especially as the industry returns to normality and begins to experience growth once again.
- Kennedy, R. (2019), ‘Bowled Over With A Feather’: When Safran Aircraft Engines Went Courting for GE, GEAviation, https://blog.geaviation.com/product/how-safran-wooed-ge-launching-cfm-international/ [Last Accessed 5th March 2021]
- Kennedy, R. (2019a), 100 Years of Reimagining Flight, GE Aviation, Orange Frazer Press
- CFM (2021), The Leap Engine, https://www.cfmaeroengines.com/engines/leap/ [Last Accessed 5th March 2021]
- Kjelgaard, C. (2018), Pratt & Whitney Details GTF Recovery Schedule, AINOnline, https://www.ainonline.com/aviation-news/air-transport/2018-03-16/pratt-whitney-details-gtf-recovery-schedule [Last Accessed 5th March 2021]
- CFM (2021a), SAS EXPANDS LEAP-POWERED FLEET WITH NEW ENGINE ORDER, SERVICES AGREEMENT, https://www.cfmaeroengines.com/press-articles/sas-expands-leap-powered-fleet-with-new-engine-order-services-agreement/ [Last Accessed 5th March 2021]