This debate should be about the technologies, but never is.  Passengers who are unfamiliar with the technologies see propellers on a plane and assume it is old and noisy.  Readers of this blog hopefully are not in that category.

Pure jets and turboprops (TP) are both turbine powered.  The latter has a bigger fan (propeller) and fan turns more slowly than the smaller encased fan on a pure jet. The turbine used on a TP is designed specifically for the application and burns much less fuel. Essentially the debate should be between which type of fan is more efficient.  As in every case, the debate reduces to being mission specific. The debate is not some academic exercise. It is a very serious issue for operators.

There is a perception that TPs do not have the  same level of technology as jets.  Nothing could be further from the truth. Today’s TP-powered airliners have the same accoutrements –  radar, GPS, HUDs.  And they even have noise cancellation making them about as quiet as jets even though they have huge props spinning a few feet away from the cabin. They are also nearly as fast, too. The “killer app” for a TP is that it burns much less fuel per passenger – so for short missions (typically 350nm or ~60 minutes) a TP has better economics. On a typical short route of 300nm the fuel consumption of an ATR 72 is roughly half that of a regional jet.

The fuel burn issue is a growing economic advantage. ATR points out that since 2004, as the jet fuel prices increased regularly with high volatility it became the primary concern among airlines. When compared with turbofan, TP savings on short routes are significant and, according to ATR, can reach 5% of a brand new aircraft value per year of operation. Unpredictable expenditures from fuel volatility is a deep concern in terms of cash flow.

To provide context to this debate, consider’s Kathryn Creedy report after the recent RAA conference in Nashville: Even though TPs are more efficient for regional routes, there is need for capacity and capability.   US Regionals are flying longer legs for their mainline customers.  Note the language above about waiting for a decade – this language is almost exactly what we have been hearing from Southwest apropos a revised 737 or NSA from Boeing. Across the board airlines are growing desperate for newer technologies to save on fuel burn regardless of what planes they operate.

Over several years, TPs account for over half of all regional aircraft deliveries and are dominant (>75%) in the 50-70 seat category. On shorter routes, speed difference is too small and cash operating cost and acquisition costs too great to justify the higher costs of a jet. ATR also pointed out that when looking at the 70-seat segment where today most competition takes place, 75% of aircraft ordered since 2005 are TPs. Currently 92% of the 70-seat backlog are for TPs, reflecting increasing market share.

The US TP fleet is aging.  Only the Q400s operated Colgan for for Continental Express and those at Horizon for Alaska are current and state of the art.  ATR, based in France, sold its newest model to lessor ALC in California. Of course primarily being used by regionals, TPs are subject to scope clauses.  These rules created by pilot unions to ensure mainline pilots cannot be under priced by lower costs regional pilots.  The impact and influence of these rules is sufficient to disrupt what would be a straightforward economic decision.  Labor rates are generally significantly lower both in terms of crew and ground support for TPs.

As an example of just how disruptive these rules can be, Embraer left the TP market even though it produced a very good airplane in the EMB120.  Embraer decided to focus on regional jets and has done a very job at it.  But just because Embraer left the TP business does not mean it is bad place to do business. China and India are developing TP airliners, while others like Viking in Canada are updating an older design and offering a compelling airplane in the 19-seat segment.  Among the TP offerings, there appears to growing interest in the 90-seat segment – square in regional jet territory. TPs can, and do, compete with regional jets.

Which brings us back to the debate.  If we narrow the debate to competition in the 70-90 seat segment then we can start to get closer to a reasonably comparative scenario.  The 30-seat regional jet is passe.  The 50-seat regional is threatened by the 70-seat TP – for the same money why not get 20 more seats flying at half the fuel cost per seat?  This is not a situation unique to the US; Virgin Australia is trading out relatively new Embraer E-170s for ATR72s.  A decision that must be especially galling to Embraer.

This chart was presented at 2011 RAA by ATR’s head of sales, John Moore.  As you can see the TP offerings are very competitive.  And this is why regional airliners want to exploit them more (if they could), rather than stay with more costly regional jets – fuel cost over $3 per gallon has an impact that is immediately and painfully visible. Note crew cost is about the same across the board, as are the other costs.  This is a fuel burn game and regionals are in the business of producing a seat mile at the very lowest cost possible in order to survive. Or as Mr Moore put it to the media at RAA:The debate should be straightforward then.  For routes between 200 and 350nm a modern TP offers significantly better economics than a jet. One can state all things being equal because they virtually are; as the chart shows the main cost driver between the two is fuel.  The newest jets in the 70-90 seat category come from Embraer and SuperJet.  These are very good aircraft and for routes that are somewhat longer they might offer an advantage in terms of block time.  The key point in the debate is that is the time saving worth the cost of fuel at $3/gallon?  Can an airline make that extra cost in fares by persuading people that a jet is better than a TP?  Many would say that selling a TP seat is much more difficult than a seat on a jet.  But if this is still the case, numerous airlines operating modern TPs are going to work very hard on changing that attitude.

And the debate continues.

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