As the regional jet phenomena continues, the controversy over where it makes economic sense to abandon a turboprop in favour of a jet has moved down to the 30-seater range.

Where once the argument centred on the economics of a 50-seat jet, the undisputed success of aircraft in that range renders that debate meaningless. But with 30-seat jets beginning to enter service, some defenders of the turboprop question the economics of this choice.

Speaking at the RAA conference, Saab Aircraft Leasing president Michael Magnusson insisted that there are two separate markets for the 30-seat jet and 30-seat turboprop. "The 200 mile (320km) range is where the jets really have to go if they want to take business away from Saabs. That is my bread-and-butter business," said Magnusson. On a 200 mile route, he added, a jet would burn twice as much fuel and cost 30% more to operate. "You cannot get away from it," he said. That is why, he added, that such jets are usually operated on routes of 350 miles or more. "Over 300 miles, the jets begin to take over; but up to 80% of Saab flying is less than 300 miles."

Not everyone agrees, however, that the straight economics of a particular route are important. US-based Skyways Airlines has five Fairchild 30-seater 328JETs in service and is ordering more. Chief operating officer Michael Garvin says the aircraft are being used on routes between 80 and 700 miles. Garvin says that for Skywest, which acts as a feeder to upmarket carrier Midwest Airlines, the importance lies in providing a similar standard of service across the network rather than isolating the economics of a single route. "You have to do two analyses; top and bottom," says Garvin. "You have to accept that turboprop aversion is a factor and there is an issue of providing seamless jet service. You can do that with the 328JET and still be efficient."

Other airlines and analysts agree that weighing up the economics of a 30-seat jet is less black and white when an airline is taking network into account and also when the carrier is seeking commonality across a fleet of 30-, 40-, 50- and even 70-seater jets.

Barry Ecclestone, executive vice-president sales and marketing at Fairchild Aerospace, forecasts a "robust and balanced" market for 9,100 jets in the 30- to 110-seat range over the next 20 years. That forecast is based on what he describes as "actual market needs" and does not take into account any negative impact that pilot scope clause restrictions would have on the US market. Even allowing for a "messy area" in the 70- to 110-seat range, where scope clauses come into play, Ecclestone says there remains "a lot of interest in 30- and 40-seat regional jets", which can both hub raid and provide hub relief in a fragmenting market the way that 50-seat jets are being used.

Fairchild continues to examine closely plans to develop a 90-seater 928JET that could be stretched further. New chief executive Charles Pieper says a 928JET proposal is "very realistic", whereas the company has "not yet crossed the bridge" on possible development of a 50-seater.

Source: Airline Business