Southeast Asia is experiencing a decline in the use of turboprops on short-haul routes, raising questions about the region’s ability to adopt zero-emission short-haul aircraft in the future.

In 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic, turboprops accounted for 43% of “super short-haul” routes in Southeast Asia, but this dropped to 39% in 2023, according to a report published by the Aviation Studies Institute at the Singapore University of Technology and Design.


Source: Changi Airport

Malaysia’s Firefly is the only carrier to operate turboprops on the route between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore

The report, penned by independent aviation consultant Brendan Sobie, defines “super short-haul” as a route of less than 270nm (500km).

“Given the relatively large size of the domestic super short-haul market it is surprising there have not been any commitments from Southeast Asian carriers for zero-emission short-haul aircraft. It is this segment of the market where net-zero carbon goals are achievable in the relatively not too distant future.”

Sobie observes that Southeast Asian carriers have reduced their turboprop fleets in recent years, instead boosting their reliance on jets. He estimates that the amount of turboprop flights is 40% lower than in 2019, and that the number of turboprops in service with the region’s airlines has fallen to 200 aircraft from about 300 at the start of 2020.

“This is a concerning trend as turboprops are generally more efficient and emit less carbon dioxide per passenger than jets on very short sectors,” writes Sobie.

“The dwindling turboprop fleet in Southeast Asia is also a concern as it provides less opportunities for potential conversions to electric, hybrid-electric, hydrogen-electric or hydrogen powertrains.”

Sobie indicates that turboprops are less popular among the region’s airlines and passengers, who tend to prefer jets. Moreover, government policies favour jets. By a considerable margin, the most popular turboprops in the region are ATRs.

To underscore the problem, he lists a number of short-haul sectors in the region that could be efficiently operated by turboprops. One of these is Singapore-Kuala Lumpur, a 159nm route that is ideally suited for turboprops, but which is mainly served by jets.

He also gives examples of short-haul routes that require passengers to take multiple flights aboard jets, noting that the Malaysian city of Kuching is 112nm from the Indonesian city of Pontianak, with both located on the island of Borneo. Indonesian policy precludes international scheduled services into Pontianak, so the shortest alternative is for passengers to fly via Jakarta, a total journey of 900nm.

Sobie offers a number of recommendations, namely that Southeast Asian airlines and governments reconsider turboprops for very short segments.

He also has recommendations for specific countries, calling on Indonesia to reconsider its policy of limiting international flights to just 12 airports. He calls on Malaysia to reconsider its plan to allow jets at Kuala Lumpur’s secondary airport, Subang, and instead promote better use of turboprops, so as to create an environment for new zero emissions aircraft.

“Singapore should consider adjusting policies for small aircraft at Changi airport, particularly for new zero-emissions aircraft, to facilitate sustainable aviation and super short-haul connectivity,” writes Sobie.