The death of the regional turboprop has been much exaggerated, suggest aircraft manufacturers and lessors, pointing to the continuing need for short-haul transport and emerging opportunities in the freighter and charter markets.

For flights of less than 370-555km (200-300nm), the turboprop appears to have the advantage in operating economics, particularly with the recent rise in fuel costs. A recent study by Saab, for example, comparing the Saab 340 with a 30-seat jet over a 370km sector claims a 27% lower available seat kilometre cost.

Carriers switching to an all-jet fleet "face the choice of dropping short-haul flying or contracting services out to someone else", says Saab Aircraft Leasing president Michael Magnusson. Where 340s are being phased out by American Eagle and Business Express (BEX), they are finding a new lease of life with other operators as 19-seat turboprop replacements.

Magnusson points to the recent placement of 10 ex-BEX 340Bs with US Airways Express operator Chautauqua Airlines and the sale of nine Eagle aircraft, plus nine options to American Trans Air's feeder carrier Chicago Express. Colgan Air has acquired another three 340s, all of which are replacing 19-seat Raytheon Beech 1900 and BAE Systems Jetstream 31s.

BAE Systems' Mike Canzion claims its J31/32s in turn are finding homes with smaller charter operators. It has placed five additional J32EPs with Tennessee-based Corporate Airlines and seven J31s with Guildford Transportation of New Hampshire. Fairchild similarly has sold nine former Hainan Airlines Metro 23s to Canadian charter operator Alta Flights.

As the residual value of turboprops falls, the aircraft are becoming attractive freighter propositions. "This has only just started. We see not an insignificant freighter cargo market, but we have to wait until aircraft reach a certain value," says John Buckley, ATR vice-president for sales.

ATR has recently issued a request for proposals to vendors to convert ATR 42s and 72s into freighters by fitting the aircraft with a 2.9 x 17.8m (116 x 70in) side cargo door in the forward fuselage.

The ATR 42 is able to accommodate up to five LD3 containers and the ATR 72 up to seven.

Embraer has also sold its first 10 service bulletin kits to International Airline Support Group (IASG) to modify the EMB-120 Brasilia to a freighter or quick change configuration. Its Atlanta-based subsidiary North South Airways will take the first of six freighters in September. With large numbers of ex-Comair aircraft coming on to the market IASG sees a potential for 22-24 conversions over the next two years.

Source: Flight International