Rolls Royce & Boeing seek symbiosis to pull out of pandemic blues

By Rahul Vaimal, Associate Editor
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Rolls Royce
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UK-based multinational engineering company, Rolls Royce has expressed interest in providing the engines for a new midrange jetliner if US-based aerospace pioneer Boeing chooses to move forward with the concept later this decade.

According to reports, the US plane maker has been reaching out to the British engine manufacturer in recent weeks to gauge its interest in a possible new aircraft. The midsize jet will be designed to fill a void in the product portfolio of Boeing and blunt the success of the A321neo, an Airbus sales dynamo.

As per the sources, the conversations centered on an early-stage concept with specifics that are in flux. As it is typical before a new development program, Boeing is not yet collecting capital or undertaking broad-ranging studies with airlines and lessors.

Indeed, the chances for the project to go forward depending on various factors, including the advent of new engine technologies to attract buyers, the financial health of aerospace suppliers, and the recovery of a jetliner market that has been flattened by the pandemic of coronavirus.

Boeing and Rolls-Royce refused to comment. According to the reports, Boeing had informed suppliers and customers about a proposed new single-aisle airplane that would carry between 200 and 250 passengers, earlier this week.

Amid the worst downturn in aviation history, analyst reactions to the possibility of Boeing weighing a new development program varied, with opinions ranging from supportive to incredulous.

Douglas Harned, an analyst at Bernstein said, “It’s ‘absurd’ to expect a new Boeing plane to emerge soon, given the risk of cannibalizing sales from the company’s own 737 Max and the financial strain on airlines and manufacturers”.

“There is not a next-generation engine on the horizon and engine OEMs are so cash-constrained they would hardly prioritize developing one,” he said in a report, referring to Rolls-Royce and other turbofan manufacturers.

But because of the extended grounding of the Max, which has been barred from the skies since March 2019 after two fatal accidents killed 346 people, Boeing is at risk of losing major market share to Airbus. The model is expected in the coming months to win regulatory approval to fly again.

To stay competitive over the long term, Boeing should seriously consider investing in a new family of single-aisle jets, said Ron Epstein, a Bank of America analyst.

”Hard times demand hard decisions,” said Epstein, adding that an all-new design would reach the market as travel rebounds from the pandemic.

“If they want to stay relevant, they have to do a plane,” Mr. Epstein said. “And managing the company just for returning cash to shareholders and cutting costs – that’s not going to get them there. That’s yesterday’s strategy.”

The Chicago-based corporation scrapped plans for the so-called NMA, or new midmarket airplane, earlier this year at the urging of Boeing’s new chief executive, Dave Calhoun. The concept was aimed at flights of about 5,000 nautical miles, with an oval-shaped fuselage and a twin-aisle cabin.

Instead, the sales team of Boeing fanned out to discuss other plans to replace its 757 and 767 aging jetliners and compete with Airbus, the people related to said. An extra long-range variant branded as the A321XLR, which has emerged as a 757 successor with sales to United Airlines and American Airlines, includes the A320 family of the European planemaker.

A wide single-aisle jet, with a carbon-composite frame, capable of carrying more than 200 travelers across the Atlantic Ocean, was included in the Boeing concepts. Its turbines, the same requirement as the NMA’s engines, will produce 50,000 pounds of thrust.

According to the sources, As the pandemic left Boeing and its biggest customers struggling to survive, discussions were held and the aerospace titan disbanded the team of more than 1,000 engineers working on futuristic versions, including the NMA.

Since then, while Boeing is focusing on reducing costs and getting the Max back into commercial operation, a small team has tended to the design concepts.

The pandemic has affected Rolls-Royce particularly hard because it only provides engines for wide-body aircraft. Many of those aircraft remain grounded because they are largely used in international travel, which has been slammed by virus fears and health restrictions. For its Ultrafan engine program, the troubled engine maker said earlier that it was seeking collaborations.

Rolls-Royce pulled out of consideration while Boeing was still aggressively developing the NMA, saying its latest engine would not be ready by the plane’s planned debut in the mid-2020s. With the new Boeing idea, Rolls-Royce would only move forward if it made commercial sense, the source said.

Rolls-Royce is now trying to make the Ultrafan usable by the end of the decade, with the pandemic having set back the timetable for investment in new aircraft programs. To generate fuel efficiency, the engine is set to use a geared turbofan technology and will be scalable from 25,000 pounds of thrust to 100,000 pounds.