ATR is an enviable position: the Airbus-Leonardo joint venture supplies more than three-quarters of the annual demand for regional turboprops, has an order backlog – significantly bolstered in 2017 – equating to around three years of production, and, perhaps most significantly, its sole Western competitor, Bombardier, is currently occupied with matters other than rejuvenating its Q400 line.
Against that backdrop, it is unsurprising that chief executive Christian Scherer is only too happy to take things slowly when it comes to deciding its future product strategy.
Of course, an added impediment to a rapid resolution is getting its shareholders to agree on the way forward. In recent years, Leonardo had become increasingly impatient to launch a larger turboprop, at one stage even threatening to pursue the project alone, or with other partners.
Although Leonardo conceded in late 2017 – after a leadership change earlier in the year – that such a development might be too costly without Airbus's involvement, the threat always seems present.
Airbus, meanwhile, has been looking further ahead, considering whether a next-generation regional turboprop needs more fundamental changes than a larger, modern airframe and new engines.
Potential avenues include the use of hybrid-electric propulsion, new materials and construction methods, and future cockpit layouts with just one or no pilot at all.
Airbus is clearly looking at some or all of the above for its mainliner offerings, but is wary of leaping into the unknown.
Scherer – an Airbus man – is aware that ATR represents an opportunity to test new technologies with much lower industrial risk than on its shareholder's main product lines.
Embraer's noises throughout 2017 that it was evaluating the possibility of returning to the turboprop market might be seen as a potential catalyst to spur a new aircraft development by ATR.
Scherer says he feels no pressure to act from Embraer's moves, but while ATR is not the weakest beast in the herd, another rival is never welcome.
Although ATR has the luxury of time on its side, it would arguably be in a better position if it had first-mover advantage over its opponents.
After all, with Boeing talking to its Brazilian counterpart, perhaps Embraer will find a partner of its own.
Source: Flight International