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Regional revolution

Kevin O'Toole/LONDON

Regional aircraft manufacturers must, by now, be getting used to living in a perpetual state of revolution, and 1997 was no disappointment. The year began with Fokker delivering its last few aircraft and ended with the loss of another famous name, as Saab Aircraft announced its retreat from turboprops. British Aerospace had already done the same with the closure of the Jetstream J41 line.

In short, the trend remains the same. The new breed of 30- to 50-seat regional jets sweep all before them, while turboprops continue their retreat. The provisional sales totals for 1997 show that almost over 100 more orders were recorded for the regional jet families than for the turboprop programmes.

This year, the gap should widen markedly. Embraer and Fairchild Dornier, with their ERJ-135 and 328JET 30-seat regional jets, are competing on US tenders alone worth up to 185 firm orders.

The production schedules speak for themselves. Embraer plans to turn out its first 20 ERJ-135s in 1999, but to ramp up to close to 50 after that. Deliveries of the 50-seat ERJ-145 are already on course to double this year to 66 aircraft, as the Brazilian manufacturer works to fulfil its backlog. Bombardier is already up to that level with its rival Canadair Regional Jet (CRJ).

Fairchild Dornier, meanwhile, plans to start deliveries of the 328JET in 1999 with about 20 aircraft, but building up to 48 a year by around 2000.

If all the plans materialise, the three manufacturers alone could be delivering 200 of their 30- to 50-seat regional jets a year by the turn of the century, with a healthy sideline in corporate versions to bolster production. By comparison, there were only a little over 300 regional aircraft produced in total in 1997, with two-thirds of those turboprops.

All of this raises the question of what impact this has on the existing turboprop market. The 19-seat sector is already acknowledged as a secondhand market and the 30-seat market has followed rapidly, confirmed by the demise of the Saab 340 and the J41.

The fate of the larger 50- to 70-seat turboprops is less clear. The ATR range had a strong year, with over 50 orders, but the total market was for fewer than 100. Bombardier took most of the rest, thanks to its new Dash-8-400.

The real test will come, as it did for 19- to 30-seaters, when the new regional jets begin to push used aircraft out of fleets and on to the secondhand market. Aero International (Regional) found homes for 23 used ATRs in 1997. Leasing companies are already exploring new roles for the larger turboprops. Both the BAe ATP and ATR families have been proposed as potential successors to the ageing fleet of turboprop freighters.

Also less clear is what happens at the higher end of the regional jet ranges. The AI(R) venture was forced to abandon its Airjet 60- to 80-seat family, after failing to convince its partners - especially a sceptical BAe - that the economics would work. The consortium itself could now break up, with ATR arguing that there is little sales synergy with the BAe Avro RJ.

The current market suggests that Bombardier's CRJ-700 offering has lost some of its momentum since its launch early in 1997, with the backlog stuck on 29 aircraft since mid-year.

Fairchild Dornier is still keen to enter the 70- to 90-seat end of the market next as the next step in its grand, $850 million, plan to complete a full range of regional jets. The 728/928JETcould be developed within little more than three years with an outlay of $500 million, says president Jim Robinson. He admits that the 70-seat market has been slow in the USA, but expects serious interest to emerge from Europe over the next few months. Airlines have already begun to take the launch seriously, but there is little doubt that the privately owned US-German company does not have the ability to go it alone with the whole development programme without securing risk sharing partners.

For the time being, the Avro RJ has the 85- to 100-seat market to itself following the exit of Fokker. AI(R)'s head of sales, Jeff Marsh, believes that the niche will be safe for the next decade at least. Avro has continued to turn out around 20 aircraft a year, sold for cash to the regional arms of major airlines. Marsh points to the latest RJ85 acquired by Northwest Airlines for affiliate Mesaba. The aircraft is laid out in a 69-seat two-class layout to mirror the comfort of the cabin on mainline services. The numbers may not be high, but, as Marsh points out, all but two of the 23 planned deliveries planned for the coming year are already sold. Above all, the Avro business is making money - a rare feat in the turbulent world of regional aircraft.

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