Europe’s regional airlines are flying fuller aircraft than ever, as the sector rebounds strongly from the 9/11 downturn with turboprops in particular enjoying a renaissance.

European Regions Airline Association director-general Mike Ambrose said at ERA’s general assembly in Barcelona last week that business is booming for regional carriers.

Scheduled passenger traffic among ERA members is up 8.2% in the first half of this year compared with 2005, says the ERA.

Passenger load factors are also up to a record 62%, raising the bar from last year’s record of 59.8%. The number of seats in the marketplace has increased 5.1% and available seat kilometres by 5.9%.

European manufacturer ATR illustrates the resurgence in demand for turboprop short-haul transport aircraft, taking 52 orders for new aircraft in the first nine months, and on 8 September it delivered its 700th of the ATR 42/72 series. The manufacturer has an order backlog of 130 aircraft.

Irish ATR operator Aer Arann’s chairman Padraigh O’Ceidigh says the prophesised demise of the turboprop never materialised, and indeed the type is back in its element, serving routes profitably on which the low-cost jet operators cannot make money.

He quotes Cork-Dublin as an example, where he says Aer Arann makes a profit with ATR 72s, carrying load factors around 80%, while Ryanair runs a loss leader with Boeing 737-800s at load factors between 50% and 60%.

“Everyone thought jets would provide the sex appeal the marketing departments could work with,” says O’Ceidigh, adding: “Like a model, the jets look good on the catwalk, but they don’t work in the real world of regional short-haul operations.”

Now Saab has announced the largest single lease deal ever for its 340Bplus, with Australian regional carrier Regional Express (Rex) having signed for 25 of the type, and the biggest deal for the 340 since it went out of production, says Saab. The aircraft features a redesigned extended wing that increases flight performance and improves fuel efficiency.

Rex managing director Geoff Breust says: “Rex has been finding it increasingly difficult to respond to numerous requests from regional Australia for quality air services. These aircraft present Rex with the opportunity to undertake a bold commitment to expanding our services to regional Australia.”

The 340Bplus fleet will enter service with the airline over the next three years. Rex already operates 30 Saab 340s.

Source: Flight International