By Jackie Thompson in London

The turboprop revival continues, demonstrating superior economics compared with the regional jet over shorter stage lengths

The revival in fortunes of the turboprop industry that began over a year ago shows no sign of losing altitude. Regional turboprop services grew by 8% in 2005, says ATR, driven largely by soaring fuel prices that are rendering regional jets of comparative size increasingly uneconomic.

According to ATR chief executive Filippo Bagnato, in 2005 the manufacturer enjoyed its best year since 1989, with 90 orders and 26 options. “I am convinced last year’s turboprop sales were not a peak,” he says. “I believe 2005 was the beginning of a cycle.”

In total there were 127 orders for new turboprops, 90 of which were with ATR, with the remaining 37 going to rival Bombardier. Deliveries were up too, rising by 30% on the previous year to 43 aircraft. Both manufacturers agree there is a trend towards larger models, with the 68-seat ATR 72 and the 74-seat Bombardier Dash 8 Q400 attracting much more attention than stablemates with 50 seats and less.

Turboprops lining up W445

Emerging markets

Turboprop manufacturers are increasingly looking to the emerging markets of India and China for new business. Indian infant low-cost carrier Kingfisher recently took delivery of its first ATR 72, part of an order for 35 aircraft with 20 options. Chief operating officer Nigel Harwood says: “We intend to use our turboprop fleet to connect smaller Indian cities, and as a means of feeding into the main metros. The growth in the economy and personal wealth is starting to spread into small cities, and the desire to travel is growing rapidly.” Between them orders from India’s Air Deccan and Kingfisher accounted for more than half of the orders ATR secured last year.

There is still some activity in the US market, however. Horizon Air has purchased two Bombardier Q400 turboprops from Hainan Airlines to meet immediate capacity needs until it takes delivery of an order for 12 new Q400s, the first of which is due to be delivered in December, Horizon says. The US regional converted seven CRJ700 jet orders to Q400s and added orders for five more of the turboprop last October.

Barry McKinnon, vice-president of marketing and airline analysis at Bombardier, says that last year a large share of orders came from Asia, but warns that the US market should never be underestimated, particularly as the US majors in the throes of restructuring become aware of the economics of operating turboprops on short stage lengths. He says the Q400 has a useful economic range of up to 960km (520nm), observing that Horizon flies the aircraft on routes from cities in Alberta and Montana to Seattle, which are well over 800km.

As far as the secondhand market is concerned, according to Airfax, a total of 303 turboprop aircraft are available, of which the ATR 42/72 and Bombardier Dash 8 account for just 36 aircraft. McKinnon says: “Dash 8s come on the market with reasonable frequency but are fairly quickly placed.”

According to ATR’s Bagnato: “We are today discussing with new customers future redeliveries. In the past it was the opposite situation but now we are selling aircraft still to be delivered to ATR.” This neatly illustrates the strength of today’s surging turboprop market.

Source: Airline Business