KLM Cityhopper turns attention to turboprop replacement

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Dutch regional carrier KLM Cityhopper is to turn its attention to its Fokker 50 renewal, ahead of identifying a suitable replacement for its Fokker 70 fleet and its last five Fokker 100s.

Amsterdam Schiphol-based KLM Cityhopper operates 12 Fokker 50s, plus 21 Fokker 70s, alongside 20 Fokker 100s - of which 15 are being replaced with 10 Embraer 190s.

KLM senior vice-president for fleet development and aircraft trading Jan Witsenboer says: "The Fokker 50 is the next challenge. The Fokker 70 is a later challenge. Certainly we will be watching what happens on the engine side."

He adds: "There are not too many options. It could be a turboprop, like the Bombardier Q400, or a jet, like the Embraer 170/175."

High-speed rail services have eroded demand on Cityhopper's shortest routes, causing it to seek out a larger aircraft in the 70- to 80-seat range as its Fokker 50 replacement.

Speaking at Embraer's Sao Jose dos Campos headquarters during a media briefing to mark the arrival of the first Embraer 190, KLM Cityhopper managing director Michel Coumans said: "Short-haul destinations, like Maastricht and Eindhoven, have less and less need to be connected by air."

By seeking out a larger regional aircraft, Coumans accepts that Cityhopper may end its operations into London City Airport, where Air France-KLM Group carriers CityJet and VLM Airlines have a strong presence.

He says: "London City probably will not be the airport for Cityhopper in the future. One of the advantages of being part of a large group is that you can play the game a bit more economically."

Cityhopper's first Embraer 190 is due to enter commercial service on 17 November, kicking off a fleet renewal programme which will span the next seven years.

"In six or seven years from now, we will have our whole Fokker fleet renewed," says Coumans, adding that all options are open. "It could be a two-type fleet. I'd never rule that out."

By 2009-10 the airline is planning to replace 15 of its Fokker 100s with 10 Embraer 190s, which are already on firm order, leaving it with only the five newest examples of its largest Fokker variant. Cityhopper holds options on nine more Embraer 190s.

Over the same time horizon KLM Cityhopper will take five additional Fokker 70s from Air France-KLM Group sister carrier Regional, building its total to 26. Each aircraft will undergo a four- to six-week conversion to Cityhopper standards - covering items such as safety equipment positioning - costing $150,000-200,000 per aircraft.

Although Coumans remains enthusiastic about the Fokker variants, he says growing maintenance costs mean that the aircraft are no longer efficient enough for Cityhopper's operation.

Several potential buyers have emerged for the Cityhopper-owned Fokker 100s. "We have had a lot of interest. At this point eight parties have come forward which I consider to be seriously interested," says Coumans.

By 2012 Cityhopper will start to replace its 26 Fokker 70s, a renewal which Coumans is aiming to complete by 2015-16.

Witsenboer adds: "We can't wait forever for a decision - it is likely to be 2010-11 - but this order is the big question mark. We hope that we will have access to new technology by then, giving a step-change in performance and environmental improvements.

"The other question is timing, and if it will be available early enough for us. We are hoping for significant breakthroughs with this new aircraft with at least a double-digit reduction in fuel burn. I'm not talking 10-11%, but 15% and beyond."

To achieve these improvements, Witsenboer is keeping a close eye on engine developments. The most substantial efficiency gains are widely tipped to come from open-rotor technology, but Witsenboer says the potential for application of this technology on regional aircraft is unclear.

KLM would prefer for the technology to be reasonably mature before introducing it into the fleet. "We like to see flying before we buy," he says.