Back to stay: the regional aircraft market

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The regional aircraft market is undergoing a transition as high fuel prices spark an upswing in demand for turboprops. Our directory reveals what is available

Far from being a transient phenomenon, the resurgence of the turboprop witnessed since oil prices reached unprecedented levels is being maintained. Last year, the two Western turboprop manufacturers, ATR and Bombardier, logged combined orders for 134 turboprops, almost half of the total for regional aircraft. This compares with just 13 in 2004. In the nine months to the end of September this year, ATR reported orders for 54 ATR 42/ATR 72s, plus 25 options, while Bombardier signed up customers for 25 Q Series aircraft, plus 10 options. The larger models of both manufacturers have taken the lion's share of the orders. It is notable that orders have come from customers across the world, with no geographic region dominant.

The request for proposals by Con­tin­ental Airlines for up to 24 70-seat turboprops to be operated by its regional partners, and the announcement that American Eagle is to reactivate its Saab 340 fleet, marks a significant about-turn by the USA following a virtual wholesale move to regional jets in the last decade.

The new market has encouraged banks and financial institutions to become increasingly active in financing turboprop acquisitions, and lessors have also reported growing demand for their fleets.

Secondhand boom

There is also increased buoyancy in the secondhand market, with inventories of ATR, Bombardier and Saab turboprops shrinking and demand beginning to outstrip supply. Many types are getting a new lease of life as converted freighters. All this suggests stability, which is likely to be sustained while fuel prices remain high, and competition and resulting pressure on yields forces airlines into more cost cuts.

The other major shift in the market for regional aircraft, which had become evident last year, is the now almost total stagnation of demand for 50-seat jets as airlines opt for larger types to achieve better economics. As a result, Bombardier is ceasing production of the CRJ200, while Embraer has also slowed production in Brazil, after having secured orders for only five aircraft. A contract from Hainan Airlines for 50 ERJ-145s has revived the Chinese production line, leaving a combined backlog of 55 aircraft. No ERJ-135s and ERJ-140s remain to be delivered. Both manufacturers are considering upgrades and freighter conversions for their smallest aircraft.

The 70-seat jet market is also being squeezed by the demand for more capacity, with several airlines changing orders and options to the larger 90- to 100-seat types being offered. Bombardier is considering adding a stretch to its CRJ900, provisionally dubbed CRJ900X, providing three more seat rows, or revive its CSeries programme. Embraer is putting extra seats into its E-170/E-190 product line within the existing airframe, but has ruled out a further stretch beyond the new 122-passenger capacity of the E-195. The general trend upwards has also forced Chinese and Russian manufacturers to discard, for the moment, the smaller members of the regional jet families under development. AVIC I and Sukhoi have decided to first produce the 90-seat ARJ21-700 and the 98-seat Superjet 100 respectively. Japan has also revealed new projects, with the Mitsubishi MJ-90 jet furthest advanced.

Bombardier is also to evaluate a possible stretch of the turboprop Q400. Provisionally designated Q400X, the larger aircraft would seat up to 90, entering the realm that has been exclusively jet territory. ATR has not responded with a similar proposal for its ATR 72-500, but several years ago had plans for larger turboprops and jets. Could these be revived?