ATR has begun testing a procedure that could improve take-off performance by up to 20% and lead to new sales to niche regional carriers seeking de Havilland Dash 7 replacements.

Vice-president engineering Carmine Orsi says a take-off procedure is now being tested in Toulouse on a prototype ATR 72-500 outfitted with a new higher thrust version of the Pratt & Whitney Canada PW127 engine.

The procedure can reduce take-off length by 15-20%, or to about 850m (2,790ft) on a fully loaded ATR 72, by using full power at take-off and reducing minimal speed.

Current procedures require the engine to be de-rated for take-off, but Orsi says a new version of the PW127 that will be standard in all production aircraft from early next year will allow pilots to take off at a 100% power setting.

ATR unveiled plans in January to offer an upgraded engine with 4,510shp (3,365kW) of maximum power, or about 5% more power than the current PW127.

Orsi says pilots under the new procedure will also be allowed to rotate the aircraft at a slower speed, further reducing the ground roll. ATR says despite the reduction in minimum speed it hopes to be able to maintain the current 1,500ft/min (7.62m/s) rate of climb.

"The real challenge is to enhance performance and continue to maintain good ATR performance for other aspects of flight," Orsi says.

The new procedure, including the reduction in minimum speed, has already been validated in simulation. Orsi says flight tests are due to be completed this autumn and the new procedure should be certificated in mid-2008.

ATR will publish a new performance tables after the procedure is certificated. Orsi says the aim is to reduce take-off roll to about 850m on a fully loaded ATR 72 in standard conditions, but until the tests are completed it is hard to say exactly what minimum take-off distances will be certificated.

The planned improvement in take-off performance has already helped ATR complete new sales in Malaysia and the Philippines.

Malaysian regional carrier Berjaya Air in June ordered four ATR 72-500s to replace its Dash 7 fleet. Berjaya general manager Lim Kian Hui says the carrier will initially use the ATR 72-500 to serve the island of Redang, which now has a 1,000m airstrip that is to be extended to 1,200m before the first aircraft is delivered in March 2008.

Lim says before ATR demonstrated a lightly loaded ATR 72 at Redang last year it thought an aircraft larger than an ATR 42 or Bombardier Dash 8 Q300, which it had been evaluating since 2004, would not be able to access the airstrip. "We were only looking at the ATR 42. It turns out the ATR 72 is as good as the ATR 42," he says.

Berjaya also operates its fleet of four Dash 7s from a 982m airstrip on Tioman Island. Lim says a new airport on Tioman with a 2,000m runway may open in 2010, when Berjaya's last two ATR 72s are delivered, but if the long-delayed project does not happen it will look at operating its new ATR 72s into the existing airstrip.

He says until the new performance tables are published it is unclear if a fully loaded ATR 72 will be able to take off from Tioman's unidirectional runway with the new procedure during tailwind conditions.

Malaysia Airlines, which earlier this week ordered 10 ATR 72-500s for its new regional subsidiary Firefly, may also use the aircraft to launch services to Redang and Tioman.

Berjaya, which operates resorts on both islands, has been the only carrier serving Tioman for several years and has been the only carrier at Redang since an airstrip opened there in 2004.

The ATR 72 may also be used to access the Philippine resort island Boracay. Currently the short airstrip at Caticlan, which is connected to Boracay via a short ferry service, is manly served by Asian Spirit Dash 7s and Seair Dornier 328 turboprops.

But Cebu Pacific plans to launch services to Caticlan next year using some of its six newly ordered ATR 72-500s. Asian Spirit and Seair are also now looking at acquiring the ATR 72s to upgrade their Caticlan operations to the larger, more fuel-efficient turboprop.

ATR says the upgraded engine and new take-off procedure could open a new niche market for the ATR 72-500 and give it a competitive advantage over the Bombardier Dash 8 Q400s.

Several Dash 7 operators have been looking at larger replacements for years, but have held off acquiring new aircraft because neither the Dash 8 Q400 nor the ATR 72 with the current engine could access airstrips of 1,000m or less.

"Our people from market development and route analysis are talking to customers who can take advantage of this new engine," Orsi says.

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