In the turboprop market, 2012 began with Bombardier in a desperate search for market share, hopes rising for the launch of a 90-seat turboprop, and fundamental disagreements among the major players about the size and shape of future demand.
As the year closes, Bombardier's scramble to extend the Q400 backlog has been fulfilled, but the other two critical questions the turboprop industry is faced with only appear to be murkier, with no resolution apparent until well into 2013. Bombardier still trails ATR significantly in the orders and deliveries race after a lopsided result in 2011, when the ATR 42-600 and ATR 72-600 out-gained sales for the Q400 by 157 to seven. However, the Canadian airframer was spared the indignity of a production hiatus for the 70-seater with a strategic win coming on 1 May.
In the depth of the Canadian winter, Calgary-based WestJet staged a closely-watched fly-off between the ATR 72-600 and Q400. The Q400's comparatively high speed across Canada's vast territory and Bombardier's local appeal seemed to tilt the competition from the beginning, but WestJet insisted there were no favourites. In the end, the carrier selected the Q400, buying 20 and taking 25 options.
Bombardier has seldom needed a contract more. It has signed orders for 27 more Q400s, yielding a total of 47 from five customers, but the WestJet order ensured the Toronto-based assembly line will stay in business for at least another year and, not least, spared the airframer any embarrassment from losing a customer on its home turf.
There continue to be other signs of life for the Q400, and Bombardier showed off the turboprop on a tour through May and June in Russia, a nation that shares similar geography and climate to Bombardier's home country. So far, nothing tangible has materialised from the marketing trip, but orders may not be far off.
Closer to its home, the Q400 continues to gain appeal in the most northerly of markets. Alaska Airlines said in late October that it is considering buying more Q400s for regional subsidiary Horizon Air, the type's launch customer and still its largest operator.
The acquisition, which could leverage 10 options for Q400s in Alaska Airlines' orderbook, would support a possible expansion of intra-state operations from the carrier's Anchorage hub.
ATR was careful not to gloat too much about its orders success in 2011, with executives assuring, even in January, that Bombardier was likely to have a rebound year. But the Franco-Italian airframer, based in Toulouse, has managed to keep itself at the forefront of the orders race. The ATR has some natural advantages in short-haul missions, where the Q400's 70kt (130km/h) speed advantage has less payoff.
That quality has paid off handsomely for ATR in Asia, and that trend continued this year when Indonesia's Wings Air purchased 27 more ATR 72-600s to become the type's largest operator with a total of 60 on order. ATR's backlog includes reserve production slots until 2018.
For most of its history, ATR struggled to merely stay a few orders ahead of its last delivery, but now it has earned the luxury of long-range planning.
Among its rivals, ATR has been publicly outspoken about the need to develop a 90-seat turboprop. It is surely not a prospect the company takes lightly.
Whereas Bombardier needs to merely stretch the Q400 by 20 seats, ATR may have to consider more radical changes, such as adding on a new, higher-speed wing. The 90-seat ATR turboprop may not have to match the cruise speed of the Q400, but it may need to close some of the gap to become more competitive.
For its deliberations, ATR has the outspoken support of two engine makers. Pratt & Whitney Canada has already launched development of a next-generation regional turboprop engine that is sized to support a 90-seat aircraft. General Electric, meanwhile, is offering the CPX38, a derivative of the GE38-1B in development for the Sikorsky CH-53K heavy-lift helicopter.
GE is so bullish on the 90-seater that it revealed in May it had even been contacted by Saab, which was working on a turboprop study. Saab officials have since ruled out a return to civil turboprop manufacturing, but the episode speaks volumes of the engine makers' keen interest to find a launch customer for its emerging engine programmes.
Perhaps the hesitation to launch a 90-seater aircraft stems from continued bewilderment about the prospects for the turboprop industry as a whole. Rising fuel costs usually translate into higher sales, but airlines seem unsure whether customers are willing to trade jets for turboprops.
A review of three publicly released, 20-year forecasts reveals the lack of consensus about the turboprop market's future.
Japan Aircraft Development Corporation (JADC), Bombardier and Embraer have each published 20-year forecasts of the turboprop market this year. Bombardier's forecast of 2,850 turboprop orders during a 20-year period is a roughly one-third higher than the estimates by JADC and Embraer.
Although JADC and Embraer roughly agree on the total number, they disagree widely on the distribution between market segments above and below 60 sets, with JADC estimating a market size for the smaller segment more than double Embraer's estimate.