Turboprop manufacturers have suffered disproportionately during the current economic downturn, but Toulouse-based ATR "Integrated", the entity formed by EADS and Alenia Aeronautica in 2001, says the tide is about to turn.

Jean-Michel Léonard, chief executive of the joint venture that is responsible for the 48-seat ATR 42 and 74-seat ATR 72 turboprops, says the economic realities of the post-11 September airline industry mean "there cannot be any other solution but turboprops for small regional carriers". Several European and Asia-Pacific carriers have expressed "serious interest", which Léonard expects to be translated into sales early next year. "For regional carriers that want to serve thin routes, rather than become a secondtier, quasi low-cost operation, small regional jets are not as cost effective," he says.

ATR estimates an annual demand for around 50 aircraft and the manufacturer squares up to Canada's Bombardier Dash 8 Q Series in most competitions. It has developed new, quieter versions of its line-up with shareholder support that was crucial at a time when several rivals, such as Fokker and Saab, retired from the market. "We are lucky that we are part of a larger organisation that can help us work through the economic downturn," he adds.

But Léonard admits the company's break-even figure of 10 units a year is being criticised. ATR's sales teams have also remarketed used aircraft returned from lease or defaults and parked at Toulouse Blagnac airport.

The ATR 42 was selected by FedEx Express this year for its 5,000kg (11,000lb) payload requirement and Léonard expects a similar selection of the ATR 72 for the 7,000kg category. Orders for cargo conversions will reach at least 150 over five years, he adds.

French design bureau Aéroconseil recently delivered a Bulk Freight version of the ATR 42 and is competing in the ATR conversion market with the ATR-approved Alenia Aeronavali division. Léonard points to this as proof of a more pragmatic approach to the business that has made approval of modifications easier. This followed restructuring in 2001, when ATR followed the lead of its Blagnac neighbour Airbus and shifted from a consortium into ATR Integrated. Léonard estimates that regrouping has reduced costs by around one-fifth and decision lead times from weeks to days.

Cost-reduction pressures led to the manufacture of some subassemblies being moved away from France and Italy. ATR 72 rear fuselages are now produced in China and wing subassemblies in Poland.

A proposal for a joint sales and marketing venture with Embraer failed, however. EADS is a minority shareholder in the Brazilian regional jet manufacturer and had considered the ATR as a turboprop addition to Embraer's range. "We know it can be difficult to focus the two sales teams on to each other's ranges," says Léonard. The two companies will still co-operate on e-commerce spares and support portal Aerochain.

Source: Flight International