TURBOPROPS ON THE COMEBACK TRAIL21/07/2008
planes shunned for being slow and noisy, are enjoying a renaissance as
airlines seek more efficient short-haul aircraft to counter soaring fuel
Generally used on flights lasting up to four hours and carrying an
average of 70 passengers, turboprops were consigned to history by most
airlines years ago.
However, as operators struggle to maintain profitability, the
propeller-driven planes, which typically burn around 25 percent less fuel
than similar-sized jets, have seen a resurgence in demand.
"With a slowing economy, high pressure on airlines' costs and
rocketing fuel prices, there is strong growth potential in the regional
market," said Stephane Mayer, chief executive of French-Italian regional
turboprop manufacturer Avions de Transport Regional (ATR), at a Farnborough
Toulouse-based ATR, the world leader in the 74-seat prop market,
shrugged off the current tough economic climate to estimate regional
airline passenger traffic will grow an average 8 percent annually for the
next 20 years.
ATR, a joint venture between Italy's Finmeccanica and EADS , has seen
a 63 percent increase in demand over the past year and has a record order
backlog of $1.3 billion.
With demand clearly growing, ATR, which makes the 46-50 passenger ATR
42 and 68-74 seat ATR 72 regional turboprop aircraft, is now considering
producing a new 90-100 seat plane, having ruled out stretching the ATR 72.
Without offering a timeframe for production or going into specifics,
Mayer said the larger capacity ATR would be similar to the new ATR 72-600
due to enter service in 2010, but with a lighter airframe, lower emissions
and greater comfort compared to similar turboprops and jets.
"Market trends are moving towards larger capacity aircraft, which ATR
intends to address. No final decision has been taken, but we are evaluating
our future product strategy," Mayer said.
ATR, which sees its 2008 turnover topping $1.3 billion, up from $1.1
billion in 2007, expects to deliver over 60 turboprop aircraft this year
and 80 by 2010. It delivered 44 last year.
However, the Franco-Italian outfit is unlikely to have things all its
own way with Canadian planemaker Bombardier , the only other remaining
manufacturer of turboprops for commuter airlines, currently studying a
stretched version of its Q400 model.
Bombardier has yet to give its next generation version of the Q400
the official go-ahead but Chief Executive Pierre Beaudoin recently said
there was "great potential for it in the long term".
Brazilian planemaker Embraer is also mulling a new turboprop, while
China's Xian is hoping to gain clearance for its 50-60 seat MA600. Also,
India's National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL), is in talks with Pratt and
Whitney to co-develop an engine for a 90-seat plane.
"Turboprops fly slower and make a lot of noise and that's why the
industry went away from them 30 years ago. But I think the turboprops,
specifically in the smaller, regional airplanes, are making a big
resurgence. We have seen a big increase in sales in the turboprop market in
the regionals," said Paul R Adams, senior vice president of engineering at
Pratt & Whitney .
With record operating expenses hitting airlines large and small,
turboprops could once again become the plane of choice for smaller commuter
carriers who no longer believe regional jets offer value for money on
But all is not lost for the regional jet, with Bombardier this week
announcing the launch of its all-new C Series due in 2013 and Russia's
Sukhoi booking deals at the Farnborough Airshow to take its order book for
the new SuperJet 100 to more than 100 planes.