Airbus, along with Boeing, is one of the two major manufacturers of large commercial aircraft on the global stage today. With revenues of more than $60 billion USD and innovative plans for future developments in airframe technologies, Airbus has extensive resources and a wide base of suppliers around the world.
Among its most critical suppliers are those who manufacture the company’s engines. In this article, I will take a close look at these suppliers as well as the reasons why Airbus doesn’t make its own engines.
6 Companies Making Engines for Airbus
Airbus works with several different engine manufacturers, and these manufacturers also produce certain engines in several partnerships with one another. At the most basic level, Airbus’ engine manufacturers are General Electric, Pratt & Whitney, Rolls-Royce, and SNECMA/Safran.
Partnerships between manufacturers include CFM International (GE and SNECMA), International Aero Engines (Pratt & Whitney, Rolls-Royce, MTU, Kawasaki, Mitsubishi, and IHI), and Engine Alliance (GE and Pratt & Whitney).
Pratt & Whitney
US-based Pratt & Whitney is a major engine supplier to Airbus aircraft and was utilized especially heavily in earlier Airbus airframes, like the A300 and A310. Pratt & Whitney powerplants are also available for use on the A220, A320neo, and A330.
Today, roughly 25 percent of passenger aircraft worldwide are powered by Pratt & Whitney jets, and the company is also a major supplier to Boeing. Pratt & Whitney also produces jets for military aircraft, including for the F-35, F-22, F-15, F-16, C-17, EA-6B, E-3, E-8, B-52, and KC-135. The company is also involved with space propulsion systems.
Also based in the US, General Electric – or more specifically, GE Aviation – produces engines available on the Airbus A300, A310, A330, and A330neo. General Electric is also a supplier to Boeing and produces turbojet, turbofan, and turboprop engines found in a wide variety of commercial and military aircraft worldwide.
UK manufacturer Rolls-Royce supplies and has supplied engines found on the Airbus A320, A330, A340, A350, and A380, and is also a Boeing supplier. The company produces turbojets, turbofans, turboshafts, turboprops, and rocket engines found in both commercial and military applications.
CFM International is a joint venture between GE Aviation and France’s Safran Aircraft Engines (formerly Snecma), formed to build and maintain the CFM56 turbofan found in Airbus’ A320, A320neo, and A340. The engine has also been used on the Boeing 737 and KC-135, as well as McDonnell Douglas’ DC-8.
International Aero Engines
International Aero Engines is a joint venture registered in Zürich between Pratt & Whitney, Germany’s MTU Aero Engines, and Japanese Aero Engine Corporation. The venture’s primary product is the IAE V2500 turbofan found in the A320 family, as well as in the McDonnell Douglas MD-90 and Embraer C-390.
Engine Alliance is an American 50/50 joint venture between Pratt & Whitney and GE Aviation that focuses on jets for high-capacity, long-range airframes. Originally designed for the Boeing 747-500/600X, the GP7000 was redesigned for use on the Airbus A380 following the Boeing program’s cancellation.
Why Doesn’t Airbus Make Its Own Engines?
Given the company’s size and capabilities, it is fair to wonder why Airbus does not simply design and develop its own engines, or perhaps at least acquire a company that already produces engines to bring propulsion technologies in-house.
While this may seem to be a good idea on the surface, full vertical integration of something as complex as a family of modern airliners would be an astronomically expensive endeavor. Airbus benefits greatly from the fact that many of its suppliers also develop technologies for competitors. This means that the costs of research and development are offset and shared to some extent by competitors like Boeing, which also uses many of the same – or at least very similar – technologies in its own aircraft.
This fact partially explains why it would not make much sense to acquire one of the major engine manufacturers in the market today.
Since commercial jet engines tend to be produced by one of only a few manufacturers that are utilized by both Airbus and Boeing, for Airbus to purchase one of those manufacturers would probably mark the end of Boeing’s relationship with that manufacturer. In such a scenario, that manufacturer’s engines would now likely cost Airbus more than they had before, as all cost-sharing and economies of scale gained by the existence of multiple customers would be lost.
The existence of multiple suppliers also means technologies are developed in a more competitive environment where innovation and cost savings are rewarded. Thus, better technologies are likely to prevail than if Airbus developed everything for its aircraft in a vacuum.
Beyond reasons grounded in economics or innovation, producing engines in-house could lead to legal problems for Airbus as it attempted to make sales in the US. Although there are limited ways around the problem, American antitrust laws generally prevent airframe manufacturers from also producing engines, in the interest of preventing the development of monopolies.
It should be noted, nevertheless, that Airbus is currently working on its own hydrogen fuel-cell engine. Even so, Airbus’ VP for Zero Emission Aircraft, Glenn Llewellyn, has stated that the company’s development of its own hydrogen fuel-cell engine is more about developing the technologies in the first place; a partner will likely be brought in during later stages for final production.
Does Airbus Have Any Plans to Make Its Own Engines in the Future?
As mentioned earlier, Airbus is currently developing a hydrogen fuel-cell powerplant that it could, theoretically, deploy for use on future airframes. Airbus has already stated that it plans to launch a new zero-emission aircraft for entry to service by 2035.
Given antitrust laws in the US, the use of an Airbus-produced engine could prove challenging for sales to American customers, although Airbus has also partnered with CFM International on a separate hydrogen combustion project, so it may be that a future hydrogen-powered airframe could be offered with one engine option for American customers, and two for customers elsewhere.
Even so, the company maintains that, for the time being at least, the Airbus-produced hydrogen engine is more about developing the technology. According to Airbus executives, the company may very well bring in a manufacturing partner for the engine prior to any future commercialization, although it has not closed the door to producing it fully in-house.
Airbus is the world’s largest producer of commercial passenger jet aircraft, but despite its vast resources, it relies on third-party suppliers for many of its most important components, including its jets.
Although the company is developing its own hydrogen fuel-cell powerplant on a limited scale at the moment, Airbus takes advantage of the innovations and economies of scale afforded by a competitive marketplace of external turbofan specialists.
The existence of multiple suppliers drives innovation, while at the same time, the existence of multiple customers purchasing engines from those suppliers helps to diffuse the R&D and production costs Airbus would incur if it set out to produce all of its engines in-house.