© Sergey Kohl |

Hundreds of A320neo aircraft will be grounded for extended periods of time over the coming three years owing to inspection and repair work on their jet engines. This will culminate in about 650 aircraft parked early next year.

The problem is a further constraint on the availability of freighter conversion candidates as passenger carriers scramble for narrowbodies to maintain their schedules.

RTX Corp, the parent of jet engine maker Pratt & Whitney, recently announced that contamination in powdered metal used for its marquee-geared turbofan engine necessitates large numbers of A320neos to be grounded for inspections and repairs.

The problem had surfaced earlier, but now RTX finds that an additional 600-700 engines will have to be removed for testing and repairs through 2026, on top of an estimate of 1,200 engines announced in July. On average 350 aircraft will have to be parked each year over the duration of the period, peaking at 650 planes grounded early next year.

In addition, RTX shifted its earlier estimate of down time to fix engines from about 60 days to around 300.

Ram Menen, the retired chief of Emirates SkyCargo, noted that RTX is not the only engine maker with quality problems. GE and Rolls Royce have also had issues with fan blade vibrations, he pointed out.

The troubles spring largely from the use of metal alloys in engine production replacing machined metal. While this reduces the weight of the engine, it opens the door to possible contaminations and impurities in the alloy that can result in cracks caused by vibrations and reduce engine life.

“The engine OEMs have reached too far in terms of efficiency and have given up reliability,” commented Bob Convey, SVP sales & marketing at freighter conversions specialist Aeronautical Engineers Inc.

RTX is taking a $3bn charge on its third quarter balance sheet and has cut its sales outlook for the year from a previous range of $73bn-$74bn down to $67.5bn -$68.5bn.

Airlines are also feeling the pain, aircraft evaluation and consulting firm IBA noted.

“We’ve already seen problems with the provisions of spare engines to support the current AOG situation to maintain new deliveries, but surely if we end up with the situation whereby circa 650 aircraft ended up grounded for an extended period, the pressure to take engines from the line to support the in-service fleet will reach epic proportions,” commented IBA chief economist Stuart Hatcher.

Lufthansa and Wizz Air have announced capacity reductions and increased use of their fleets. In an interview with Bloomberg JetBlue CEO Robin Hayes said that the carrier had planes on the ground with no engines because there aren’t enough to support them. He called the bottlenecks in plane and engine availability “the biggest inhibitor” of the airline’s growth plan.

JetBlue stands to receive altogether 19 new Airbus planes this year, instead of 30 as planned.

As a result of the shortage of aircraft and engines, airlines are scrambling to get their hands on narrowbody planes to fill gaps in their fleets. This has a knock-on effect on freighter conversion outfits and companies looking to turn used passenger planes into freighters.

Mr Convey expects passenger carriers to try to get their hands on A320s and 737NGs, which will further exacerbate the shortage of suitable conversion feedstock. This has already been under strain from the rapid expansion plans of passenger airlines and prompted aircraft leasing firms to cancel conversion orders to keep planes in passenger service.

Mr Menen sees a silver lining in this situation for cargo carriers and aircraft maintenance and repair outfits.

“Air cargo and the MRO businesses benefit from frequent engine down times and needing major repairs. For an airline, especially freighter operators, movement of engines, especially ones about 60000 lbs thrust is big and high growth business,” he remarked.

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