New ATR North America president Guillaume Gasparri knows he has a mountain to climb. The European turboprop manufacturer has seen its share of the US regional aircraft market steadily drop since the fatal crash of an American Eagle ATR 72 in late 1994.

Not only has ATR failed to place a single new aircraft with a US carrier in more than 10 years, the number of ATR passenger aircraft operating in the USA has dropped from a peak of 155 at the end of 1994 to a projected 46 aircraft at the end of 2008. Guillaume is tasked with turning around ATR's freefall in the USA just as the economy enters a recession and the country's regional carriers struggle to stay afloat.


Compounding the difficulties, ATR has lost its chief US salesman. John Buckley, the former vice-president of sales for North America, had been ATR's primary sales contact in the USA for more than 20 years. Gasparri, who is new to the regional aircraft sector having joined ATR from Eurocopter in April, acknowledges he needs to quickly find someone with extensive industry experience to fill Buckley's shoes.


But Gasparri is confident a replacement will be in place by the end of the year. He is also confident the time is ripe for ATR to regain market share in the USA as high oil prices force carriers to re-examine turboprops after largely abandoning the type following the introduction of regional jets.

"Turboprops are again the flavour of the month because of fuel, carbon dioxide, emissions and cost," Gasparri says. "I'm an optimist. I think there's a huge potential for ATR in the USA."

ATR over the past two years has posted record sales in nearly every region, prompting it to dramatically increase production from only 15 in 2005 to 68 this year. But in the USA, ATR has struggled to overcome a public stigma against turboprops, which was exacerbated by the 1994 crash. "Passengers see the turboprop as yesterday's aircraft and people aren't comfortable with turboprops. The fact all US airlines switched to regional jets didn't improve the image," Gasparri says.

But he says this image is starting to improve and ATR is planning to "retarget" its advertisement campaign to focus on potential passengers. "At the end of the day it's the consumer that puts his ass on the aircraft, not the airline people," he says.

ATR hopes Eagle's decision to shift 12 ATR 72s from the Caribbean to the central USA, where the aircraft flew before the 1994 accident, will further help the US public reacclimatise with turboprops. Six ATR 72s have moved to Dallas and the rest will be based there by year-end, while the other 27 ATR 72s in Eagle's fleet will remain at its San Juan base.

But ATR is losing its presence in the south-east USA as Delta Air Lines phases out its 12 ATR 72s. The first of these aircraft, which are operated by Atlantic Southeast Airlines, have already been returned to ATR and the last will go back in early December.

'25814'US ATR Fleet 1990-2008 

The loss of Delta will leave American as the only US major with ATRs in its network. But Gasparri believes Delta could return to ATR after it completes its merger with Northwest Airlines. US Airways has also been looking at the new ATR 72-600, which ATR demonstrated late last year to US carriers. Although the credit crunch and downturn in demand seems to count against buying new aircraft now, Gasparri predicts a flood of sales for ATR North America in the next few years.

"I don't believe carriers can stop purchasing new aircraft for too long. I think people will restart the process of buying aircraft," he says. "Now is a good time to see people and provide information."

Gasparri adds that a few years ago US carriers "weren't interested in even talking to a turboprop representative. Now people are willing to talk to me. I'm sure after 10 years of suffering, we're back. It's ATR's revenge. I hope in five years from now to say I've participated in the rebirth of ATR in the USA."

Source: Flight International