Why Korean Air Is Unlikely To Acquire The Airbus A350

Last week we examined the entire Korean Air fleet and asked ourselves what type of aircraft the airline might order next. Many of its Boeing 777-200s and non-ER -300s are around 20 years of age. While airlines have certainly held on to aircraft that are far older for far longer, it was nonetheless a good thought exercise to imagine what Korean Air could eventually replace these twinjet widebodies with in the future. All signs point to the Boeing 777X, for the sole reason that the rival Airbus A350 exclusively operates Rolls-Royce engines. Let’s unpack this interesting detail a little further.


No Rolls-Royce engines in the fleet

Did you know that Korean Air has no Rolls-Royce-powered aircraft in its fleet of nearly 160 aircraft? Indeed, the carrier’s aircraft types that have Rolls-Royce powerplants available are powered by non-Rolls-Royce engines:

  • The Airbus A380s are powered by Engine Alliance GP7000 series engines rather than Rolls-Royce Trent 900s.
  • The Airbus A330s use Pratt & Whitney PW4000 series and GE CF6 powerplants instead of utilizing Rolls-Royce Trent 700s.
  • The Boeing 777-200s also use Pratt & Whitney PW4000 series powerplants rather than the Rolls-Royce Trent 800 employed on early 777s.

Thus, based on the airline’s decision to stay away from Rolls-Royce powerplants, we can imagine that the Airbus A350 and its Rolls-Royce Trent XWB engines would either be a less appealing option, or completely out of the running.

Why doesn’t Korean Air use Rolls-Royce engines?

One Simple Flying reader commented that Rolls-Royce has a policy regarding engine maintenance that mandates that their engine products be maintained at their designated facilities. However, Korean Air has its own engine maintenance facilities, which aren’t authorized as Rolls-Royce “customer owned shops.”

Rolls-Royce has a number of Authorized Maintenance Centres and customer-owned shops around the world that are able to competently repair and maintain the company’s products. While there are nearby customer-owned shops in Beijing and Tokyo, Korean Air likely prefers to do much of its work in-house.

Indeed, Korean Air has chosen to build a deeper relationship with rival engine maker Pratt & Whitney (P&W). According to the airline’s MRO website, it has joined the Pratt & Whitney GTF MRO Network and “will benefit from advanced maintenance technology.” The airline adds that “the scale of the engine maintenance orders that Korean Air will take is the biggest in the Korean MRO industry to date.”

“Korean Air expects to secure maintenance capabilities to completely disassemble, assemble and test the PW1100G-JM engines with its first maintenance work on the PW1100G-JM engine expected in the third quarter of 2023.” -Korean Air MRO

Considering the airline’s decision to focus on other engine types, their lack of experience with Rolls-Royce engines might also be a factor, as it requires the extensive training of engineers. This can also make getting ETOPS approval more difficult.

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Is the upcoming Asiana merger a problem?

Of course, Korean Air may inevitably be taking Airbus A350s in the future anyways through its pending merger with Asiana. In 2017, Asiana signed on with Lufthansa Technik (LHT) for a 15-year Total Component Support (TCS) contract to support the airline’s Airbus A350 fleet. This contract means that Asiana must send its A350s to Arnstadt, Germany and N3 Engine Overhaul Services for more extensive engine maintenance. N3 is a 50-50 Joint Venture between Rolls-Royce and Lufthansa Technik.

With a 15-year contract set to end in 2032, there’s a lot of time still available for A350 maintenance. A successful acquisition of Asiana would probably see the A350s continue getting their servicing completed at LHT/N3 facilities. That is, unless, Korean Air decides to simplify its fleet and sell-off the 13 Asiana A350s.

Asiana’s A350s could be an issue for Korean Air. Photo: Airbus

So is a 777X deal guaranteed?

If we stick to our understanding that Korean Air will stay away from Rolls-Royce engines, then the A330neo and A350 could be ruled out due to their exclusive use of RR powerplants. So, if this is indeed the case, then it would appear that Korean Air will be going to Boeing to replace its aging 777-200s and -300s.

Of course, despite the way things appear now, anything is possible, and Korean Air could very well decide to make an exception for some Rolls-Royce-powered aircraft, and sign a deal to maintain them with outsourced partners. Or, it could become a Rolls-Royce-approved MRO facility too.

But what do you think? Will Korean Air’s non-Rolls-Royce engine decisions force it into a corner with too few aircraft options? Let us know by leaving a comment.

Sources: Rolls-Royce, Planespotters.net, Korean Air MRO