Story Appeared in USA TODAY
A quiet innovation in aviation is expected later this month.
Bombardier Aerospace plans to test-fly a new plane with quieter engines from Pratt & Whitney. The companies say the geared turbofan engines are projected to burn 20% less fuel and reduce noise, and Bombardier could be the first to use planes with the quieter engines a year from now.
While airlines would appreciate better fuel efficiency, the promise of quieter flights for passengers and for people on the ground could also allow airlines to land more planes at airports with noise restrictions.
"They're so quiet as you come in for an approach, if you shut off the engines you can't tell the difference," said Alan Epstein, vice president for technology and environment at Pratt & Whitney, a division of United Technologies.
Neighbors of noise-restricted airports are monitoring the development of quieter engines, but they have questions about how they will actually work.
Donald MacGlashan, a board member of the group Citizens for the Abatement of Aircraft Noise, which monitors Dulles and Reagan National airports near Washington, would like a reduction in a regional jet's noise, but he's waiting to see the actual results.
"We would certainly welcome it," MacGlashan said. "But I'm skeptical."
The Pratt & Whitney engines could become the first to carry travelers on Bombardier planes next year. Pratt & Whitney's first test flight for an Airbus engine for the A320neo was May 15, but that plane isn't expected to be in service until late 2015.
A rival engine manufacturer, the CFM International partnership of General Electric and Safran of France, is also developing a quieter engine for single-aisle planes such as the A320neo and Boeing's 737 MAX. That engine is first expected in commercial service aboard the A320neo in 2016 and the 737 MAX in 2017, according to CFM spokeswoman Jamie Jewell.
The market for the quieter engines is significant, with projections for up to 25,000 aircraft over the next 20 years with as many as 50,000 engines, Jewell said. So far CFM has orders for 4,600 of the quieter engines, and Pratt & Whitney has more than 4,500 orders and options, according to the companies.
Eventually, quieter engines could be developed for wide-body planes, too.
Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst as vice president for the Teal Group in Virginia, called the Pratt & Whitney engine "a significant innovation." But he said it's unclear which engine will lead the market.
"It's become a huge battle, with completely different propulsion philosophies, different customers, yet effectively two engines in the same power class," Aboulafia said. "It's a nice step forward. We just don't know what kind of lead it will have over the competition."
The key to the Pratt & Whitney engine is a gear behind the engine's fan that allows it to turn slower for the same thrust, the same way a higher gear on a bicycle requires less pedaling to cover the same distance.
The new engine's fan for the A320neo is 81 inches in diameter, rather than the previous 63 inches, Epstein said. While larger, it turns slower and burns less fuel through a gear the size of a car's wheel, Epstein said.
The engines are headed to the Airbus A320neo; Bombardier CS100 and CS300; Embraer 170, 175, 190 and 195; Mitsubishi Regional Jet; and Irkut planes, Epstein said. Airbus and Embraer are retrofitting existing planes, while the others are putting the engines on new models.
The quieter engines are projected to reduce the jet's noise 3 to 5 decibels at specific points around an airport, which is projected to shrink the zones covered by noise restrictions by 75%, according to Pratt & Whitney and CFM.
"That means that aircraft noise, in most cases, will be contained within the confines of the airport," said Jewell of CFM.
Numerous airports across the country have restrictions on late-night or early-morning flights because of noise. For example in 2011, Reagan National got 505 noise complaints and Dulles got 157 noise complaints, according to the most recent report available from the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.
MacGlashan, the airport noise watchdog, said reducing the noise of regional jets overhead would "certainly be an improvement." But he said residents are most concerned about the loudest noises that jets make rather than the average noise that manufacturers measure.
"It depends on what kind of aircraft they're thinking of putting them on," he said.
If the new engines are successful, airlines serving city airports with noise restrictions in Toronto, London and Stockholm are eager for quieter engines to allow more flights, according to Marianella de la Barrera, a spokeswoman for Bombardier.
Pratt & Whitney and Bombardier expect the quieter engines aboard the CS100 to be the first delivered about this time next year, after the test flight expected later this month.
Announced customers include Republic Airways, Porter Airlines in Canada and Gulf Air in the Middle East.
"It's actually well suited for urban communities," de la Barrera said. "It's widely acknowledged that it's going to be a step-change for the industry."