GE Aviation CF6: The Long-Haul Game Grows Longer Thanks to The Material Business

Photo: GE Aviation

LONDON – The next installment of the GE Miniseries with GE Aviation looks at its involvement in the material business as well as its famous CF6 engine, known for powering aircraft such as the Boeing 747 and 767 and more.

In this piece, the CF6 is of major importance to GE Aviation, especially as it will forge the foundations for the future in Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO).

This piece will take a brief look at the CF6 and its five-decades long history as well as how the engine will have a new lease of life through the materials side of the business too.

A Brief Look at the CF6

The CF6 celebrates its 50th year in service this year, having first run in 1971, supplying both commercial and military aircraft, serving the following:

BabyNuke at English Wikipedia, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
  • Airbus A300
  • Airbus A310
  • Airbus A330
  • Boeing 747
  • Boeing 767
  • Lockheed C-5M Super Galaxy
  • McDonnell Douglas DC-10
  • McDonnell Douglas MD-11

At that time, the CF6 was a game-changer in the emerging fuel efficiency arena of the market, boasting significant efficiencies at that time (Trimble, 2015).

The CF6-6 was the first variant developed for the McDonnell Douglas DC-10-10 before the CF6-50 powering the -30 variant of the aircraft.

1982 saw the CF6-80A enter service with the Boeing 767 and Airbus A310 and a year after, it acquired ETOPS approval to fly longer ranges, with the CF6-80C2 then being developed for the Boeing 747-400 and the MD-11, with its ETOPS rating being upgraded to 180 minutes.

The CF6-80E1 currently competes with the Rolls Royce Trent 700 and the Pratt & Whitney PW4000 to power the Airbus A330 aircraft, bringing together quite a portfolio of commercial aircraft to be powered.

Jeten909, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

According to the GE Aviation website, the CF6 engine family has amassed over 430 million flight hours across 115 million flight cycles from 13 different aircraft types signifying its presence in the market over the last 50 years (GE Aviation, 2021).

Notable achievements of the CF6 include its ability to operate ultra-long-haul which was seen when Qantas operated the Brisbane-Dallas service, which was over 15 hours, covering 8,500 miles per flight (ibid). Obviously with the 747 out of the Qantas fleet, this fact remains in the history books instead.

In 2018, the manufacturer studied a potential reengining of the Antonov AN-124 freighters that are with CargoLogicAir, which would produce an extra 50-60 engines into the backlog, hinting at further innovation for older aircraft and older engines (Norris, 2018).

But production of the engine still lives on with current production rates estimated to be around 60-80 engines per year due to continued deliveries of the Airbus A330, A330 MRTT and the Boeing 767 Freighters, which have made a new emergence in the last few years.

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Such engines delivered in 2020 expect to have a service life of 20-25 years, meaning that 2045-50 will mark 75 years since the first CF6 ever entered service, showing significant longevity within the GE program as seen with the likes of the CF34 and other products in the manufacturer’s arsenal.

Numbers from 2018 show that over 8,300 CF6s have been built in the last 50 years. Whilst the CF6 on the 747 is now being replaced by the GEnx on the newer -8 variant, the following interview indicates that the CF6 will remain for many years to come.

Interview: Overhauling for the Future

To determine the look for the future, AviationSource got to sit down with Horacio Repetto, the Executive General Manager for GE Aviation Materials to discuss how vital this area of the business is for the company.

JF: Horacio, thanks for speaking to us. For the benefit of our readers who may not know much about the materials business, can you briefly explain GE Aviation’s involvement in this part of the industry?

HR: Certainly. When you think about GE Aviation at the highest level, we are one of the largest OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) to supply jet engines for the aerospace market. When you are in the commercial space and certainly on the military side, we are one of the premier service providers across that industry.

Photo: GE Aviation

We perform the maintenance of these engines over the life cycle, meaning the entire life of these engines.

These engines can operate between 20 to 30 years, some even longer. As part of the service and the maintenance that GE performs, we also provide materials as part of those solutions. We essentially have three streams of materials.

New material, which we manufacture. We have our repair capabilities where the materials of an engine can be repaired. And finally, we provide Used Serviceable Material (USM). It’s our mechanism to essentially collect parts around the world, whether it is through acquisitions or through our own creation of used material generated through GE’s service contracts.

And then we collect the material, we’ll repair it, and then we deploy it back into the market to provide a much more affordable product.

We always try to find that balance of the right mix of materials between new USM and repairs as well as making sure that we’re providing customers with the best value for them to continue operating the assets, which for us is the engines.

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To talk more about our space here in Dallas, we also link up via a global footprint, whether it be in the Asia Pacific region in Singapore, a couple of other locations in the U.S and then we have offices supporting customers in Europe. We do this to make sure we are offering around-the-clock support for such customers.

JF: So from what I have seen at GE Aviation, the CF6 engine is obviously quite a popular engine, even more so in the materials business. How busy has the materials side of the business been with the CF6 during the pandemic, especially on the freight side?

HR: We have been in a unique environment over the last 12 months.

The CF6 has been in service for close to 50 years, so it is a design that has evolved over the life cycle. Because of the experience that operators have and with the continued support of MRO, I think it can be considered what should be known as a workhorse.

In the industry, the CF6 has always come to respond. I think in the two airframes being the Boeing 747 and 767, it has become the primary engine for cargo operations. All cargo operators utilize those types of aircraft because of it being able to accommodate the right amount of cargo and transportubg in an efficient manner.

Max Alexander / PromoMadrid, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

And, that is why the CF6 is a top choice for freight operators. People were still requiring goods and services despite lockdowns, and the cargo industry came to the rescue when it came to that, and we believe the CF6 has played a big role in that reality.

The data backs this up with a 10-15% increase in GE engine utilization for freighters over the last 12 months while the rest of the passenger commercial aviation industry utilization of their fleets was more on a decline.

So if anything, there is an opposing kind of dichotomy there.

What it means for our Services business is really that GE is one of the premier suppliers of material for the CF6, and this is seen especially with such an engine being one of the key engines in our portfolio joining the GE90 on the Boeing 777, the CF34 on the regional jets and the CFM engines for the 737 and A320 families through our joint venture with Safran Aircraft Engines.

Hunini, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I think that demand increase in freight really enabled us to really continue doing business with our key customers.  

JF: Within the materials business, you also help with the refurbishment of older engines, especially on those that have been retired from passenger service and end up being converted into freight-ready aircraft or to secondary passenger carriers. If you refer to an engine being old, there is a fear sometimes that it may not provide the same reliability it did as when it was first built. So how does GE Aviation Materials preserve that level of consistency when it comes to operational safety etc.?

HR: We take safety very seriously. So much so, that to us, the quality of the services and the material that we provide is not a 99% safety rating, but a 100% safety rating. There are no shortcuts to be taken.

You either ship it right or you don’t ship it at all. That’s how we view our material business.

So as we think about how we support this industry through this timeframe with those types of solutions, in engines that are 25-30 years old, you want to make sure that reliability remains to the standard that customers and operators expect, which is 100% every single time.

In terms of the mechanisms we utilize to make sure of it, it falls into the last piece where customers are paying for reliability and quality, as well as the cost of ownership too. We work with the customers to make sure we’re providing confidence across all those streams to ensure that they can operate their engine reliably.

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Let me start with the reliability part itself, using the CF6 as an example.

As the engine comes into maintenance, there is a detailed review by our engineering team to scope exactly what kind of work we need to perform on that engine to make sure that we’re monitoring the key services that need to be performed as listed by the customer.

There are specific standards in this industry, such as downtime expectation, number of cycles and hours to perform and other elements that we gauge when considering such reliability.

From there, we look at which specific components need to be replaced, and such parts will be placed with used materials that have a workmanship guarantee when installed.

The used serviceable parts that we install have all of the associated documentation that certifies it for use, and they have been repaired and brough back to industry standards using the manuals for optimal performance that we expect.

Qantas’ Boeing 747s used the CF6. Sergey Kustov, CC BY-SA 3.0 GFDL, via Wikimedia Commons

Some of these parts may be around 10 to 15 years old so we make sure that we are 100% diligent in the traceability of that part. How long did it operate? How many cycles, what temperature profiles can it operate at? How was it repaired previously? Where was it repaired? Who repaired it?

We have digital documentation around each component and through GE Aviation TRUEngine program, we perform what we call “back to birth review”.

So when we provide this part to a customer, they understand exactly where that component came from, how we performed it before, and this will be listed in their maintenance logs when they receive the part.

Then, the guarantees are behind it to ensure that the reliability and quality are met to the standard that the industry expects.

A lot of people in this industry are expecting this because as said previously, there are no shortcuts to be had in quality. Safety is how we operate, making sure that the part is to the top quality and understanding exactly where it has come from.

It’s a must. Once we have done that and it is altogether in the engine, we certify that this engine has operated and that the standards are at the expectation of the industry.

Grounded aircraft may require MRO before they are re-entered into service. Photo: Vincenzo Pace (@jfkjetsofficial)
JF: Based on what you just said then, it shows that GE Aviation is heavily committed into the MRO market. With that in mind, due to the pandemic grounding a lot of aircraft for a long period of time, do you expect to see an exponential increase in demand for MRO services?

HR: It’s all about finding the right balance when it comes to demand, especially during this time. As we can see currently, there is low utilization of aircraft and with that, engines.

As things start to evolve, particularly with the distribution of the vaccines, we need to build confidence in people to begin planning for travel.

We have started to see the pace of such demand increase. And demand is relevant to the question you have just asked, James. When do we see MRO demand begin to ramp up again?

The bottom line is operators are going to try to make the most out of the assets that they have in their portfolio today, meaning their aircraft and their engines, and so forth.

They are going to try to squeeze everything they can until the point that they have to perform service on their assets. We are already working with a lot of these operators to understand exactly what their plans are.

German Air Force/Luftwaffe Airbus A310-304 MRTT ‘August Euler’ (reg. 10+27, cn 523) General Electric CF6-80C2 engine at ILA Berlin Air Show 2016. Julian Herzog, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

How do we plan ahead? How do we make sure we have the right timing for you to perform this maintenance?

More importantly, it’s also down to how we make sure we have the right material and having it ready for use so when a customer comes to maintenance, the material is ready to go. You can perform the maintenance quickly and get back into carrying passengers or cargo around the world.

We forecast a rise in MRO demand by the second half of 2022, and we think there will be a lag of around six months before we begin to see this increase ramp up.

In terms of overall demand, we probably won’t hit pre-crisis levels until 2023, but in 2022, we are going to see a wave across the industry that will give us more hope, and it’s going to encourage everyone to begin activating more of their networks, which will mean more MRO will be needed at that point.

This figure comes from an estimation that passenger traffic will begin to increase between the second half to the back end of 2021.

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For GE Aviation, James, we are trying to be ahead of that by supporting GE’s open MRO services.

With the right materials for MRO providers to perform services, as well as our own services shops, this makes GE one of the the largest suppliers of used material in the world.

I think that allows us in all honesty, a responsibility to make sure that we are prepared for this potential spike in 2022, so that we can support customers to fly their ideas and routes forward.

JF: On the topic of looking towards the future, the GE9X will be entering service in the next few years with the Boeing 777X. It can be assumed that with a new engine, comes new approaches to servicing materials at GE Aviation. How is that side of the business going to continue such adaptation of its existing models going into the future?

HR: With the CF6 being in service for over 50 years, we are always looking at different ways and platforms of providing such services. With the GE9X, we probably won’t see demand for MRO on that engine for at least 10-15 years as the engines have to start running cycles first.

Dan Nevill from Seattle, WA, United States, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

With that in mind, we offer a multitude of material services that can be best utilized towards repair processes, and that includes how we find the right mixes for the right customers. Customers are looking for different things when it comes to maintenance, which includes how they want to operate their fleets.

So to answer your question, there is no doubt that our approach will evolve over the next 10 or 15 years, and maybe as early as the next five years, as the offerings will continue to change industry-wide.

You can build a puzzle for a specific customer on the material solutions that they’re looking to have, which means different blocks upon blocks that forge the foundation of a relationship with the customer. Thinking about those sort of solutions means an evolution in approaches and will continue to evolve depending on the needs of the customers.

JF: To round everything up, is there anything else you wish to say to our readers about the material side of GE Aviation?

HR: The first thing is that we have the responsibility to support GE’s open MRO and support our customers globally across both spaces. Whether it is passenger or cargo, we’re fully committed to helping from a services perspective and materials perspective.

Photo: GE Aviation

We are here to support our customers in a much more efficient and effective way. Why? Because we have one of the largest amounts of used serviceable material in the world because we’re very integrated with our repair network here at GE Aviation.

We are able to deploy such solutions quickly and also to a high standard, showing flexibility towards our customers for the near-term and for the long-term too. We are ready to work with our customers continuously to make sure that we’re providing a simple manner to transition with engines going into what we dub, the afterlife.

We can harvest the material and we can redeploy it back with them or to the market to make sure that we are monetizing and making the most value out of those engines.

Because if there’s one thing that is hugely important in GE Aviation that has been done time and time again, is the creation of the open MRO network, enabling our engines and material to have a lot more value because anybody can use it throughout the life cycle of an engine.

And because of that, we’ve got to work actively with all of our customers to make sure that they are realizing all that value throughout the entire life of their assets.

JF: Horacio, thanks for speaking with me.


Photo: GE Aviation

What remains clear is the continued consistent pattern explored in this mini-series so far. GE Aviation has longevity, high-quality, safe, and committed engine portfolios that despite the ages of the programs, are here to stay and will continue to do so for a very long time.

The CF6 itself was an important engine, especially when it came to the way that long-haul traffic developed throughout the last five decades, opening new markets and destinations to its customers, which has enveloped a huge competitive enclave of manufacturers designing engines that will go the extra mile.

Even with the CF6 being replaced by the likes of GEnx and the GE9X, the materials side of the business will keep that engine in existence for a long time, which will further enhance the credibility of GE Aviation’s engine arsenal.

And that is the key to their business, especially going into the short-term where the pandemic may slow down engine orders, but increase the need for MRO.


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