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Scope uncertainty pushes SkyWest to study large turboprops

US regional carrier SkyWest Airlines is examining how the Bombardier Q400 and ATR 72 would fit into its fleet as scope clause restrictions at its major partner United-Continental remain highly uncertain.

The merged United and Continental pilots are in the midst of contract negotiations and it is unclear if United's more relaxed scope clause, which allows for the operation of 70-seat aircraft by regional carriers, will prevail in a final contract. Continental's pilot contract caps regional jet flying to 50 seats but allows for the operation of 70-seat turboprops.

The increasing age of its 30-seat Embraer EMB-120s and its 151 50-seat Bombardier CRJ200s is also a factor as SkyWest examines alternatives to those aircraft. The operating economics of CRJs beyond 40,000 cycles "gives us pause", said SkyWest president Chip Childs at the International Aviation Forecast Summit.

Consultancy Boyd Group's head, Mike Boyd, stresses that as 50-seaters approach that 40,000-cycle level, they become very expensive to maintain.

Flightglobal's ACAS database shows most of SkyWest's CRJ200s are approaching 20,000 cycles, but at least nine have logged cycles in the low- to mid-30,000s.

Childs said with oil prices at $150 a barrel, a larger 70-seat turboprop is a "no-brainer", but at lower levels of $80-100 a barrel the economics are "on the thin line".

He concludes there is not an ideal replacement option for the 30-seat EMB-120s and CRJ200s, and believes a 50-seat turboprop would be suitable for a lot of missions carried out by those aircraft.

But airframers have little interest in creating a high-speed 50-seat turboprop. Bombardier built 267 50-seat Q300s but the aircraft was much slower, at 287kt (530km/h), than the Q400's 360kt. The manufacturer told the summit in Albuquerque that shrinking the Q400 to 50 seats was not viable because the capacity would not support the cost of the higher-power engines.

"You need enough chairs to cover the speed," said director of market development Jerome Cheung, who added that 50-seat high-speed turboprops had struggled to meet large-scale demand. For example, only about 60 Saab 2000s were produced.

Childs said if the airline had had more visibility on the outcome of scope talks, it may have made an aircraft decision by now. A dual-class Q400 looked attractive, he said, but evaluations rest on the economics of a larger ­turboprop and "what happens with scope".

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