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The first in a two-part series on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the business of building commercial aircraft engines.

Amid the rows and rows of parked airliners around the world hangs at least twice the number of engines covered and stored awaiting an uncertain return. COVID-19 has revealed a structural weakness built into the business model that drives the trio of the biggest engine makers.

For airplane makers, the excess hurts by crushing demand for new aircraft. But for engine makers, it’s a double hit as production rates fall and the number of airplanes in service drops precipitously and with it the lifeblood of its revenues, the aftermarket, collapses.

Related: Spike in coronavirus cases reveal signs of stalling U.S. air travel recovery

Fundamentally engine makers General Electric, Rolls-Royce and Pratt & Whitney are at the mercy of the aircraft on which their engines fly, and the relationship is inherently symbiotic. It’s been this way for as long as there has been flying. Engine makers spend hugely to develop new engines and provide their wares to airplane makers typically at a loss with the expectation that that same engine will require lucrative parts and service throughout its lifetime.

Related: The airplanes that have survived the aviation apocalypse

And there’s an enormous population to service. Commercially operating passenger and freighter aircraft make up a population of more than 61,000 turboprop and turbofan engines at the end of 2019, according to an analysis by The Air Current based on pre-pandemic Cirium fleet data. That figure doesn’t include spares, business aircraft, helicopters or all those in use by militaries around the world.

A General Electric GEnx-2B engine hangs under the wing of Boeing 747-8 on the flightline at Boeing's Paine Field factory in Everett, Wash. in 2011.

There’s little engine makers can do to reverse the agreements in place on existing programs, but the pandemic and other technological and environmental dynamics are going to force a rethink and could spark a radical consolidation of engine makers. “But on future platforms, I think it’s a conversation that the airframe and the engine manufacturers will have,” said Rick Deurloo, senior vice president of sales for Pratt & Whitney in an interview this week with The Air Current.

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Jon Ostrower is Editor-in-chief of The Air Current. Prior to launching TAC in June 2018, Ostrower served as Aviation Editor for CNN Worldwide, guiding the network's global coverage of the business and operations of flying. Ostrower joined CNN in 2016 following four and half years at the Wall Street Journal. Based first in Chicago and then in Washington, D.C. he covered Boeing, aviation safety and the business of global aerospace. Before that, Ostrower was editor of the award-winning FlightBlogger for Flightglobal and Flight International Magazine covering the development of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and other new aircraft programs from 2007 to 2012. Ostrower, a Boston native, graduated from The George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs with a bachelor's degree in Political Communication. He is based in Seattle.

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