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Return of the turboprops

With the high cost of fuel threatening the airline industry, turboprops are expected to account for a larger slice of regional aircraft sales. As the Bombardier Q400 and ATR 72 top the turboprop market, Keith Mwanalushi analyses their operational attributes and market credentials

Over the next 20 years, turboprop deliveries are expected to rise to 48% of total regional aircraft sales from the current 45%, according to the latest industry forecast by Bombardier. The Canadian aircraft manufacturer assumes a total of 12,800 regional aircraft deliveries in the 20- to 149-seat category through 2031. This is a decrease of 300 units compared with the previous forecast, mainly driven by lower world GDP growth and higher oil prices. ATR also has a long-term forecast prediction for 3,000 turboprops over the next 20 years, with a value of over $70 billion.


“There is no doubt that turboprops are seeing a resurgence in popularity,” states Rob Morris, senior aviation analyst at Ascend. “This is evidenced by increased production rates, which saw more than 100 aircraft delivered annually in each of the last four years (compared with only 22 aircraft in 2003) and increased annual orders.”


Oil and fuel prices are undoubtedly a key driver in this resurgence, as illustrated by the Ascend data on turboprop orders versus crude oil prices (see chart). It demonstrates the increased annual orders of ATR 72 and Q400 as global crude oil prices have increased. “With jet fuel prices today again close to $3 per USG and turboprops burning around half of the fuel of an equivalent sized jet, the economics of the turboprop aircraft are pressing on shorter range sectors typical in regional airline route networks today,” says Morris.


He notes that at the same time, turboprop manufacturers have improved their product offering significantly, with active noise and vibration suppression technology delivering a cabin experience close to similarly sized regional jet aircraft, so passengers are becoming more accepting of aircraft that would once have been avoided.


Swiss-based regional carrier, SkyWork Airlines, operates Q400 NextGens (NGs) out of its Bern hub to some 25 destinations around Europe. “Our choice of the Q400 was because we are in a very special airport in Switzerland,” says CEO Tomislav Lang. “Bern Airport has a very short runway and the Q400 gives us much more range and a speed competitive with jets. They are not as fast as jets, but on flight times of up to two hours we are almost head to head with modern jets but using 30% less fuel.”


Widerøe also chose the Q400 for fuel efficiency, capacity and speed. In addition, the Norwegian carrier was already operating the DH8-100 and -300, “so the Q400 was a natural and easy supplement to our fleet when we were looking to expand our operation to larger markets,” says Richard Kongsteien, Widerøe’s vice president.


The Q400 and competing ATR 72 share some common traits – both are twin-engine props with a capacity for around 70 passengers. Both aircraft are T-shaped with a high wing, and are powered by Pratt & Whitney engines on the wing. The -600 variant of the ATR 72 features a full glass cockpit, much like that on the Q400 but generally, this is where the similarities end.


The Q400 has a longer fuselage and larger, more powerful engines. The engines on the Q400 extend beyond the trailing edge, unlike the ATR 72, wherein the engine pods taper off under the wing itself. The Q400 and the ATR 72-500/600 are similar in weight, but the Q400 is equipped with engines that deliver nearly twice the power of any variant of the ATR 72. The Q400 can cruise comfortably at a max speed of 360kts, while the ATR 72 cruises at a maximum of 276kts. On a sector that takes 2 hours for the ATR 72 to fly, the Q400 can easily fly in  1 hour 40 minutes, slower than a jet by only around 15 minutes. While the ATR 72 takes longer to climb to its service ceiling of 25,000ft (FL250), the Q400 reaches this altitude in minutes. Of course, this performance doesn’t come free: the Q400 can end up consuming nearly 30% more fuel than the ATR 72-500 on the same sector. However, to offset the cost of enhanced fuel consumption is its capacity to carry between six to 12 more passengers than the ATR 72, at speeds that are jet-like, while consuming much less fuel than a jet of comparable seating capacity.


A primary motivation for airlines, particularly highly cost-conscious carriers, is to invest in an aircraft which operates with the economics that it promises. Bombardier claims that in a European environment, the 78-seat Q400’s direct operating costs (DOC) for a 300nm sector is 8.8% more than that of a 68-seat ATR 72-500. ATR on the other hand, claims that in the same environment, the DOC for a 300nm sector for a Q400 is 25% more than the ATR 72-500.


The maximum takeoff weight (MTOW) of the Q400’s basic version is nearly 28,000kg, while for the ATR 72-500 it is 22,800kg, making the MTOW of the Q400 23% more than the ATR 72. However, the payload of the Q400, at 8,625kg, is only 18% more than the ATR 72-500. This discrepancy is attributed to the much higher empty operating weight of the Q400, which is about 17,600kgs, 36% more than that of the ATR 72-500. The Q400 has more powerful (and consequently heavier) engines, and uses little or no composites in its aircraft structure, unlike the ATR 72, which uses proven lightweight composites extensively in the wing and tail plane.

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