Virgin Blue expects to take delivery of its new ATR72 turboprops from May, with the -500 variant first to join the fleet.

The carrier will have four of the type by end-July. It announced earlier today an order for up to 18 ATR72s, comprising both the -500 and -600 variants.

"We plan to have at least eight - at least eight - within the next 16 months," says chief executive John Borghetti.

ATR72-600 variants will replace the -500s from next February, he adds, declining to specify why the replacement will occur.

It is not clear yet how many of the 18 aircraft are firm orders, and if future deliveries beyond next year will only be for the -600 variant.

"The ATR will form the foundation of our regional network plans, with the first six ATRs replacing our current Embraer E170 fleet and the additional aircraft flying to new regional destinations," Borghetti says.

Virgin Blue's seating configuration has not been announced but the -500 typically seats 68-72 passengers and the -600 up to 74 passengers.

The airline will wet-lease the aircraft from West Australia operator SkyWest under an agreement announced last month.

Skywest in turn will lease the aircraft from leasing company Avation with an initial term of ten years.

"The ATR is the best aircraft to operate on regional routes throughout Australia," Borghetti says. He adds that it burns one-third less fuel than the E170 and 20% to 30% less than its equivalent competitor, a statement likely in reference to the Bombardier Dash 8-400 aircraft that QantasLink operates on its regional routes.

"Not only is it compelling from an economics point of view, it's compelling from a customer perspective," Borghetti says. "It has a wider aisle and wider cabin than other aircraft we were looking at."

The carrier last August announced it was removing its six E170s as the aircraft was not a right fit for its network. It expects to make announcements in the near future about the E170 fleet's removal.

Source: Air Transport Intelligence news