GE Case Reveals Talks With Airbus Over Engine for New Jetliner

Airbus SE has solicited engine ideas for a narrow-body jetliner in development, drawing a proposal for a new geared design from General Electric Co.

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. 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.

The Toulouse, France-based company 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.

“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.”

Geared Turbofan

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 Corp. 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.

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.

Infringement Case

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.”

— With assistance by Susan Decker

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