Airbus has solicited engine ideas for a narrow-body jetliner in development, drawing a proposal for a new geared design from General Electric.
GE’s preliminary proposal, disclosed in a court opinion that has since been sealed, reveals previously unreported talks between the engine maker and Airbus for what the court described as a “next-generation” plane.
It was unclear whether the Airbus plane would be a new model or an upgrade to an aircraft already in the company’s catalog, such as the A320neo or A220 single-aisle jets.
GE proposed using a geared turbofan system it is developing, which it considered a “technologically preferred design for the next-generation narrow-body market,” the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit wrote in an opinion Wednesday.
The disclosure about the GE-Airbus discussions came in a years-long dispute over geared turbofan patents held by Pratt, which is a unit of Raytheon Technologies.
The technology – used for other aircraft in addition to the A320 family – allows the fan blades and turbine in an engine to rotate at different speeds for better efficiency.
“GE Aviation continually reviews opportunities with airframers, including Airbus and Boeing, about engine technologies for the next generation of aircraft. The details of these discussions are confidential,” the company said by email.
Airbus similarly didn’t disclose the nature of any discussions.
“We are in constant dialogue with our engine makers about the latest state-of-the-art technologies and ongoing innovations,” the company said by email “There are many studies. Not all studies see the light of day.”
The court decision also doesn’t say when GE proposed the new engine, when or whether the plane might come to market, or how far along any talks were.
The move to seal the court decision indicates the high level of interest in what’s next for Airbus.
Airbus is building an extra-long range version of its A321neo that will allow airlines to offer long-distance routes with smaller, more fuel efficient aircraft.
The A320neo family currently offers either LEAP 1A engines from a GE joint venture or Pratt & Whitney’s PW1100G geared turbofan as options. The neo, which stands for new engine option, is itself a more fuel efficient version of the A320.
While Airbus is working on developing hydrogen-powered aircraft, aviation watchers have also wondered whether a new conventionally fueled plane might be in the offing.
Boeing also scoping out the single-aisle market
In October it was revealed that Boeing was in early-stage talks with airlines and engine-maker Rolls-Royce about a new medium range single-aisle jetliner to challenge the Airbus A321neo
The conversations centered on an early-stage concept with specifics that are in flux.
At the urging of Boeing’s new chief executive officer, Dave Calhoun, the Chicago-based company scrapped plans for the so-called NMA, or new midmarket airplane, earlier this year. That design, with an oval-shaped fuselage and a twin-aisle cabin, was targeted at flights of about 5,000 nautical miles.
Instead, Boeing’s sales team fanned out to discuss other proposals to replace its aging 757 and 767 jetliners and compete with Airbus.
The Boeing concepts included a large single-aisle jet, with a carbon-composite frame, capable of hauling more than 200 travelers across the Atlantic Ocean. Its turbines would produce 50,000-pounds of thrust, the same requirement as the NMA’s engines.
Beginning in 2016, General Electric launched an attack against Raytheon’s patents on gas-turbine engines, claiming they were taking credit for decades-old technology developed by GE or for processes that were broadly known in the industry
In all, 33 petitions have been filed at a review board within the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, most recently in January.
GE has had mixed luck at the agency, including knocking out a patent for a way to set the gear ratio in an engine. Last year, the Federal Circuit, which handles all patent appeals, ruled that merely being a competitor of Raytheon wasn’t enough to give Boston-based GE the right to use federal courts to appeal a different case it had lost at the agency review board.
To overcome that decision, GE had to provide information to show that it “is ‘currently undertaking activities’ likely to lead Raytheon to sue it for infringement.” On Wednesday, the circuit held that GE had met that burden and could pursue its case.
Raytheon said it was disappointed with the appeals court decision and that it was evaluating its options. The case involves a single patent, Raytheon said by email, and that it has “many other patents covering its revolutionary new GTF technology.”
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