ATR may have ruled out developing a 90-seat variant for now, but the Franco-Italian airframer – which has become the clear leader in the turboprop market over the past decade – says it will continue improving the performance and versatility of its two-strong family, the 45-seat ATR 42-600 and its larger 75-seat sibling, the ATR 72-600.
Toulouse-based ATR arrives in Paris with the regional aircraft sector undergoing seismic changes. In the past few weeks, Bombardier has closed the sale of the ATR 72’s closest competitor, the Dash 8 Q400 turboprop, to the parent company of Viking Air, which already makes an updated version of the 19-seat Twin Otter.
At the same time, the Canadian group has also confirmed that it is in talks with rival Mitsubishi Aircraft to take on the CRJ regional jet range. That comes as Mitsubishi readies its first Mitsubishi Regional Jet for certification, and Boeing prepares to take a majority stake in Embraer’s commercial business, and its E1 and E2 ranges.
With the “jet mania” that saw sales of smaller regional jets hit highs around the turn of the century long over, and Bombardier having struggled for years with its Q400, ATR has become the undisputed leader not just in the turboprop segment but for regional aircraft up to 75 seats. Last year it delivered 76 aircraft, compared with just 15 for the Q400.
However, chief executive Stefano Bortoli is far from complacent, with the company working with launch customer FedEx on a freighter version of its larger turboprop, designated the ATR 72-600F, and considering a short take-off and landing (STOL) variant of the ATR 42-600 with the ability to operate from 800m (2,620ft) runways with 30 passengers.
ATR announced the ATR 72-600F, its first dedicated freighter, in 2017 with an order for 30, with 20 options, from the US parcel giant. Delivery is set for next summer. Due to the growing popularity of e-commerce, Bortoli believes ATR, jointly owned by Airbus and Leonardo, can eventually deliver around 100 new freighters around the world. This is roughly the same number as there are ATR passenger-to-freight conversions.
The STOL aircraft would be pitched at airlines flying from runways unsuitable for the conventional ATR 42-600, which needs a length of 1,050m. According to Bortoli, there are around 40 to 50 such airports, often restricted to smaller types such as former de Havilland Canada types, the Cessna 402, or Britten-Norman Islander. ATR’s board will take a decision to invest or not by the end of the year.
“It opens up a market of up to 70 aircraft for us that we could not approach,” he says. “There is a big wave of replacement coming.” If there is a decision to launch, Bortoli says first deliveries could be 2022, with only “undramatic” changes needed to the braking systems, flaps and rudders, together with uprated Pratt & Whitney Canada PW100 engines.
While any sales into the STOL market would be “incremental”, Bortoli adds that many of the airlines operating from these short-runway airports have mixed fleets, “so there may be additional opportunities for us, not just with the 42”.
ATR is also making improvements in the cockpit. In August, Aurigny will take delivery of the first of three ATR 72-600s fitted with the Elbit Systems ClearVision enhanced vision system, making the Guernsey-based airline the launch customer for the technology, which incorporates a synthetic vision system that provides the pilot’s head-up display with digital images of terrain and obstacles.
Bortoli says ATR will be at Paris with a message to the industry that “we are modern and able to connect businesses and people in a responsible way”. Rather than being associated with yesterday’s aircraft – as was once feared – modern turboprops such as ATR’s are green transportation machines that offer “efficiency and value that is not just measured in dollars”.
However, the 40% fuel saving offered by turboprops over equivalent-sized jets is “not enough” He says: “From the beginning ATR has been innovative and we need to continuously work on the product, developing technology not just for the sake of it, but making it affordable technology. It has to perform better at the same cost.”
As several other airframers have done, the company has experimented with biofuels, last February partnering with Swedish carrier BRA to fly from Stockholm to Umea with a 45% mix of used cooking oil, the first biofuel-powered ATR flight.
One development that will not happen though is the long-mooted 90-seat ATR. Although Bortoli says the board considered it seriously, “we made the decision last year that the business case is not there, so we will continue to innovate our existing products and look at our long-term vision”.
The debate over whether to launch a larger airframe had reportedly caused a long-running dispute between Leonardo, keen to target a market that Embraer was threatening to rule with the E2 regional jet, and Airbus, wary of cannibalising its smaller narrowbodies, including since last year the A220, and content to target its development dollars at other projects.
Bortoli likens the partnership, which has lasted since 1981 (initially between Aerospatiale and Leonardo predecessor Aeritalia) as a marriage. “Like any marriage, there are good days and less good days, but we always have found a way of working things out for ATR as a single team,” he says.
Airbus and Leonardo are both shareholders in and suppliers to ATR. The Italian company manufactures the fuselages near Naples, while Airbus subsidiary Stelia in Bordeaux constructs the wings. Final assembly is at a campus close to Airbus’s headquarters at Toulouse’s Blagnac airport, where ATR also has its offices.
Bortoli insists that ATR is much more than a sales and customer service organisation, however, and has the “know-how” of 300 engineers employed by the joint venture working on ways to adapt the product to “ensure that it remains the right answer to many challenges in the market”.
Turboprops have a “bright future”, he says, “able to perform missions a jet cannot”, and with more passengers “appreciative of their environmental footprint”, a potential replacement and expanding marketplace of 3,000 aircraft over 20 years, as ATR sees it, may not be unrealistic.
However, will capturing the lion’s share of this market cause capacity problems for ATR, which has never delivered more than 88 aircraft a year? “We would have to address that,” says Bortoli. “We could go to 100 aircraft, if the right mix, but it would be a happy problem to have.”