Airbus is accelerating its studies of an upgraded A380 and, after talks held last month with engine makers in Toulouse, appears to be closing on an initial agreement with Rolls-Royce.


The engine manufacturer is strongly supporting plans for both the A380neo and the potential A380-900 stretch. According to industry sources, Rolls-Royce is discussing a variety of all-new engine options ranging from derivatives of the A350’s XWB-84/97 to the future Advance project unveiled earlier this year. Until recently it was widely believed Rolls-Royce may be in pole position for a possible slot on the upgraded A380 because of its victory on the A330neo with the Trent 7000, a similarly-rated engine as the current unit. This engine is due to debut on the Airbus twin in late 2017 and is derived from the ‘TEN’ version of the Trent 1000, now under final development for the Boeing 787. However sources say the proposed A380neo project will require more power than the Trent 7000 which is rated at between 68,000 lb. and 72,000 lb. for the A330-800neo and -900neo.


Although Rolls-Royce declines to comment on the A380 situation, the transition to a potentially greater thrust engine could provide for higher gross weights or presage the long-anticipated development of the A380-900 stretch. The development cost for the baseline A380neo is estimated at around $2.5 billion, primarily because of the structural revisions required for the wing, and is expected to take around four years based on previous experiences such as the A340-500/600.


The push to launch the A380neo is backed by Emirates Airline, the largest single customer for the model. Emirates CEO Tim Clark, who says the carrier could “definitely” order as many as 70 of the re-engined variants if launched, is also poised to announce the engine selection for 50 standard A380-800s ordered at the 2013 Dubai Air Show. Although Emirates operates the world’s largest fleet of GP7200-powered A380s, Rolls-Royce is bidding aggressively for the supplemental fleet order and appears to be growing in confidence that it can break the GP7200 stranglehold on Emirates.


The U.K. manufacturer currently competes for the A380 with the Trent 900 against the joint General Electric-Pratt & Whitney Engine Alliance GP7200, but is eager to build on its relationship with Airbus where it has exclusive engine deals on the new A350 family and recently launched Trent 7000-powered A330neo. The parent companies of the GP7200, on the other hand, cite an uncertain business case for the upgraded A380 and appear reluctant to make the substantial investment such a venture would require, despite holding more than 50% of the existing market.


The Engine Alliance has outlined upgrade plans which could produce near term fuel savings of 0.5% to 1%, but still well below the 10% to 12% thought to have been outlined by the Airbus requirement. Even more comprehensive upgrades for the GP7200, including a larger fan and an additional low pressure turbine stage, would gain only around 5% and be “cost prohibitive” in the absence of a compelling business case says the Engine Alliance. The difference between an incremental upgrade and an all-new engine therefore represents a financial gulf across which neither GE nor Pratt appears willing to step.


Speaking to Aviation Week, GE Aviation president David Joyce says “If you ask me if the business case closes for us to drop the GP (GP7200) and put a new engine up under the A380, I would tell you we can't make that business case close. We just can't, there's just not enough incremental sales around the world that would make that case close.” GE is currently developing the Leap narrowbody engine with Snecma and is finalizing the design of the GE9X for Boeing’s 777X twinjet. “Today if someone came to me with a proposal to put a brand new engine underneath that wing -- I just don't see that as being a priority for us,” adds Joyce.


Pratt, like GE, is also deeply mired in the development of the PW1000G geared turbofan family, and says it can ill-afford an additional commitment. United Technologies CEO Greg Hayes says Pratt is unlikely to support the development of a new widebody engine for some time. Commenting at an investor conference Hayes says the company "cannot continue to afford to invest at these levels.”