The recent high fuel prices may have encouraged the three Western regional manufacturers to seriously evaluate new or enhanced turboprop designs, but they have not dampened down enthusiasm for large regional jets, with Mitsubishi deciding to join the throng.

While Bombardier has signalled its intent to leave the regional sector with its Pratt & Whitney GTF geared turbofan-powered 110/130 seat CSeries family, Mitsubishi has adopted the new engine for its assault on the 80- to 100-seat segment with its MRJ. Incumbents Bombardier and Sukhoi have both flown their 100-seat jets this year, while the maiden sortie of China's ARJ21 is imminent.

 © Bombardier

After record orders and deliveries for regional jets and turboprops in 2007, sales dropped 40% in the first half of this year to 160, against 275. Jet orders fell by 15% from 144 to 122, while turboprop deals declined by more than two-thirds, from 131 to 38.

Despite the poor sales of turboprops so far this year, ATR, Bombardier and Embraer are seriously evaluating the feasibility of adding new turboprop models - in the case of the latter, a re-entry to the market.

Demand for a 90-seater turboprop has encouraged Bombardier to take a closer look at its proposed Q400X stretch, while ATR also perceives strong interest, but says it would be more likely to develop a new aircraft, using emerging technologies. Embraer is citing the collapse of the small regional jet market as its springboard for re-entering the sector, vacated with the final delivery of its small 30-seat Brasilia in 2001. None of the three companies will commit themselves to a timeframe, but first deliveries could be 10 years away.

Mitsubishi plans to rebenchmark efficiency in the large regional jet sector from 2013 when its MRJ arrives. The P&W engine promises a double-digit improvement in fuel burn. But if the first indigenous design from Japan since the YS-11 turboprop of the 1960s is to be a commercial success, the new entrant must convince the airlines that Mitsubishi can deliver on its promises, and dispel any concerns about technical risks - both airframe and powerplant.

 © ATR

In its latest 20-year market forecast Boeing has revised downwards its perceived demand for regional jets (below 100 seats) at the expense of larger aircraft, from 3,700 to 2,510 aircraft. Unsurprisingly Bombardier has a much more upbeat picture, although it describes its latest forecast as only "cautiously optimistic".

In the 20- to 99-seat segment, the core market for regional aircraft, Bombardier predicts a requirement for 2,300 turboprops and 4,300 jets over the next 20 years, although only 500 of these will be in the small 20- to 59-seat bracket. Bombardier also views the 100- to 149-seat market - where the CSeries is aimed - as the next large growth opportunity, with 6,300 forecast. At 6,153 units, Airbus largely agrees with Bombardier's findings for aircraft with fewer than 100 seats, although it does not separate out jets from turboprops.

While the secondhand market for turboprops continues to be largely buoyant, the small jet segment is suffering due to the high fuel price with 50-seaters being withdrawn at an accelerating pace. Many may been facing a future as package freighters or conversion to the corporate role.

The regional market in 2008 may create mixed emotions and varied assessments, but what no-one disputes is that the demand for larger regional aircraft has been evident for some time and is now transitioning to the 100- to 149-seat arena, a segment hitherto occupied only by Airbus and Boeing. Only Bombardier has bitten the bullet with its CSeries, but will it able to mix it with the "big boys"?

World Airliners part two

Source: Flight International