Turboprops were largely written out of the script by the new breed of regional jet, but their cost benefits are coming back into focus.

The writer Mark Twain, commenting on a newswire report that he had died, famously replied that reports of his death were exaggerated. Could the same apply to the turboprop?

Going by the numbers alone and paying special attention to the sharp decline in the US fleet, it is easy to conclude that the turboprop is indeed on the way out. 'An article about turboprops? It'll be short,' jokes Doug Abbey, president of the US consultancy AvStat Associates.

Once the backbone of regional airline operations in the USA, turboprops have largely been put out to pasture in the rush to acquire regional jets. AvStat figures for the Regional Airline Association (RAA), suggest that in 1997 the US regional fleet had just 137 jets alongside 1,470 turboprops and 495 piston-engined aircraft. Five years later, by the end of 2002, regional jets had come to dominate the fleet with some 1,041 units against 915 turboprops and 425 pistons. So, while turboprops had accounted for about 75% of the sector's total seating capacity in 1997, last year they made up only around a quarter.

It is a good bet that the US turboprop fleet will never again reach the numbers of the past. Still, Abbey and others acknowledge that there are areas where turboprop aircraft fly very happily, and profitably. Among the list is CommutAir, a Continental Connection carrier, which operates only turboprops from its base in Plattsburgh, New York. The carrier uses 27 Beech 1900s on about 230 daily flights. It has a growing feed operation at Continental's Cleveland hub and a successful hub of its own at Albany.

John Sullivan, CommutAir's chairman, says that the carrier drew a 300nm (550km) circle around Albany and set up what he calls 'a purposeful hub' to connect key cities in the northeast using its 19-seaters. Frequent flights allow business travellers and others to fly between these cities without leaving the region - cutting travel time and by-passing big-city hubs. 'It's a unique hub for the citizens of the region, and we get a premium price for this,' Sullivan says.

Repeat business

About 85% of CommutAir's passengers into Albany connect to its other flights. 'We have tremendously high repeat business,' he says, noting that passengers focus on elapsed time. 'They don't care about aircraft size; they want dependable service and to go when they want to go and come back when they want to come back.' The carrier is now looking at acquiring 30-seat turboprops, such as the Saab 340.

CommutAir is one of a growing number of turboprop operators being signed up as codeshare partners by Continental Airlines to provide passenger feed on short-haul routes dropped when its own, now standalone, Expressjet operation went 'all-jet'.

Some regionals are serving growing numbers of passengers with small, unpressurised aircraft. Cape Air, an employee-owned regional based in Hyannis, Massachusetts, operates 50 nine-passenger Cessna 402s and is thriving. It has three separate operations in New England, Florida and the Caribbean, operating up to 850 flights a day during high season. Cape Air also began operating on behalf of Continental on routes from Tampa, Florida and San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Some carriers, like Seattle-based Horizon Air and Utah-based SkyWest Airlines, successfully operate both regional jets and turboprops and consider the turboprops an essential element in matching the appropriate aircraft to varied markets. Besides its fleet of 103 regional jets, SkyWest also operates 76 30-seat Embraer Brasilias, primarily in its United Express role on the West Coast, but this year added Houston feed as one of Continental's new partners.

There are many areas in the USA where turboprops could and should be operated, Abbey suggests. These include short-haul markets that otherwise stand to lose air service as carriers find the cost of operating regional jets prohibitive in the face of falling fares. 'There certainly is a role for third-level carriers to play with smaller turboprops,' Abbey says. 'You can get really good used - even new turboprops for a song, but no entrepreneurs seem interested in it.'

The picture in Europe is different, according to Michael Magnusson, president of Saab Aircraft Leasing. As in the USA, the number of turboprops in service has declined, but much more slowly. The number of turboprops in European service dropped 13% from 685 in the first quarter of 2001 to 599 in same period of 2003, while the number of regional jets - generally flown greater distances in Europe - increased 30% from 245 to 317. But turboprops in service still outnumber regional jets by two to one, Magnusson points out.

The Saab executive is optimistic that the phase-out of turboprop aircraft in Europe may have bottomed out, with activity now picking up. 'We are very encouraged by the signs in Europe,' he says. With falling yields, airlines are recognising that regional jets cannot operate profitably on routes shorter than around 500km. 'Turboprop economics are more appealing than ever,' he adds.

The appealing economics of the 70-78-seat Dash 8 Q400, Bombardier's newest turboprop, caused flybe, the former British European, to totally alter its fleet and business model. Disposing of three other Bombardier models, including the CRJ200 and two turboprop types, it is concentrating on the Q400 and making it the cornerstone of a plan to recreate itself as a low-cost, low-fare regional. 'The right aircraft is simple economics; airlines have to look at costs and eventually address seat mile costs. If they don't make money, they'll go out of business,' says Jim French, flybe's chief executive.

He adds that there has been no adverse reaction to the propjet, as he prefers to call it. On two routes from Birmingham to Scotland, flybe continued to take market share while competing with first Airbus A319s and then regional jets.

Horizon Air, a subsidiary of Alaska Airlines, has also used the Q400 to compete - very successfully - against low-fare champion Southwest Airlines, which operates to key Horizon cities: Seattle and Spokane in Washington state; Portland, Oregon; and Boise, Idaho. It connects them all, except for Seattle-Portland, where Horizon runs a half-hourly shuttle.

Its fleet of 15 Q400s initially replaced Fokker F28s on 300-600km segments and Dash 8-200s on short-haul routes under 300km where the smaller aircraft was reaching limits due to performance or market density. The new type has also been used to enter new markets that are suited to its operational performance, such as hot-and-high airports like Sun Valley, Idaho.

New orders

On the 390km Seattle-Spokane route, on which Horizon uses the Q400 and Alaska uses jets, depending on the time of day, Southwest had eight flights a day and has reduced them by half. 'They are a formidable competitor,' says Jeffrey Pinneo, Horizon's president, 'but the economics of the Q400 helped us improve our performance without any loss of share.' The Q400's speed means it operates the same block times as jets in markets of 500 miles or less, Pinneo says.

'We recognise that we're the contrarians…but we have not encountered any detectable turboprop avoidance factor in any markets,' he says. 'In fact, it's quite the contrary. With 33-in seat pitch, two-by-two leather seating, it's one of the best coach rides in the air.'Although the Q400 has racked up only 97 firm orders so far - with 75 delivered - Bombardier remains confident that the new-technology derivative, which entered service in 2000, will find increasing markets.

The bulk of the new orders for the Q400 to date have been in Europe, and Barry MacKinnon, vice-president marketing and airline analysis for Bombardier Aerospace Regional Aircraft, sees more opportunities there, including countries joining the European Union next year, many with underdeveloped regional networks. But he notes too that the Q400 has made inroads in Japan, where it has found a home with two carriers. One of them, All Nippon Airways, just upped its fleet from four to six.

MacKinnon says 65% of Q400 use in general has been to replace or supplement jets. With block times the same at 300 miles, the Q400 is helping change people's perception of what a turboprop is. 'We believe its basic fundamentals make it perfect for average stage lengths of 300-400 miles,' he says.

MacKinnon says Bombardier is 'feeling better about the market' this year and expects more orders before the end of 2003. 'We think industry events affirm the need for a low-cost turboprop and we see sustained need and continuing demand for them.


Source: Airline Business