Reacting to cautious statements by executives at engine makers GE and CFM about the limits to raising single-aisle production rates, Airbus's John Leahy warned that if they don't step up to the rates he wants, he'll just sell more planes with Pratt & Whitney engines.

Share story

David Joyce, chief executive of GE Aviation, on Monday struck a cautious note when asked if he could supply enough jet engines for Boeing and Airbus to each increase production of single-aisle airplanes to 60 per month or more.

Later, Airbus sales chief John Leahy — who has talked about announcing by year-end a rate increase on the A320 rate to 63 per month — fired back a blistering, non-diplomatic riposte.

At an early morning briefing on the opening day of the Paris Air Show, Joyce’s remarks echoed those made over the weekend in Paris by the leadership of CFM International, the 50-50 joint venture between GE and Safran of France that is developing the LEAP engines for Boeing’s forthcoming 737MAX and Airbus’s A320neo.

The message amounted to: Hold on, we’ve got a lot to accomplish before we can possibly commit to that level of production.

CFM is the exclusive engine provider for Boeing’s 737. In a fierce rivalry with Pratt & Whitney, it’s battling to provide about half the engines for the Airbus A320neo.

In an interview, Leahy rejected Joyce’s caution. “I’m confident before the end of this year we will announce a ramp up,” Leahy said. “If that means I can only offer airplanes with Pratt engines, then I only offer airplanes with Pratt engines.”

Doesn’t he need GE to supply half his neo fleet? “Not if they can’t supply (enough) engines. Maybe they end up with substantially less,” Leahy said. “I hope they find a way.”

Leahy was reacting not only to Joyce but to CFM executives who said this weekend that LEAP production was geared toward the current set production targets of 50 neos and 52 MAXs per month and that there were practical limits to going higher anytime before 2020.

GE’s Joyce elaborated by pointing out that the current plan is to build the first 40 production LEAP engines next year, to ramp up steeply to 600 engines the following year and to 1,200 the year after that.

“We’d need to prove to ourselves that we can go from 40 to 600 to 1,200. We’d like a little validation … before we commit to the higher rates,” he said.

“It’s not just us,” he added. “Think about 1,000 suppliers or more (with parts) sitting inside these engines, all of which have to do the same thing.”

Joyce said executing the current plan is a “huge, huge, huge challenge.” In addition to the LEAP engine for the single-aisle jets, it is simultaneously developing the Passport engine for the big new Bombardier business jets and the GE-9X to power Boeing’s 777X.

To achieve the necessary capacity, GE has opened seven new engine parts plants in seven years, including the first plants producing innovative materials for the new engines. A new plant in Asheville, N.C., will produce ceramic matrix composites for the hot sections of the engines. In Auburn, Ala., another new plant will use additive manufacturing to print intricate engine parts from metal powder.

Joyce insisted that “there’s no conflict” with either airplane maker. “We’re committed to support them,” he said. “It’s just a matter of when we make the commitments.”

Diplomacy, however, is not the forte of Airbus’s supremely successful sales chief.

In addition to CFM’s 737 monopoly, GE has exclusive contracts on the 777 and 747-8 Boeing widebodies, which in the intense competitive battle between the three large commercial jet engine makers — GE, Pratt, and Rolls-Royce —  leaves GE especially close to Boeing.

GE “seems to see things more from a Boeing perspective,” Leahy complained.

In interviews at the Air Show Monday, the heads of two airplane leasing companies offered their perspectives on whether Airbus and Boeing should go to 60 jets each per month.

Toby Bright, the former head of Boeing sales, now chief executive of San Francisco-based airplane lessor Jackson Square Aviation, said “There’s a risk going to those rates.”

“Both companies may have lost sight of the fact that this is still a cyclical business,” said Bright. “Long term, is 60 each a month sustainable? No, it isn’t.”

Jeff Knittel, president of airplane lessor CIT, said “I’d always emphasize caution. We want reliable production.”

Yet he added that “so far, we’re seeing indications the market will absorb it.” And Knittel added one further caution: “It’s always a bad thing to bet against John Leahy.”