The world is waiting for the aerospace industry to provide guidance on the next generation turboprops. This is a small, even niche market, but it’s seen a resurgence as mainline airplanes grow in size. The regional jetliners that once dominated the 50-100 seat space have becoming economically-challenged as fuel costs shot up. The ATR-72 and Bombardier Q400 have proved to be increasingly popular alternatives to 70-seat jets. Although Mitsubishi launched the 70- and 90-seat MRJ, the smaller model has proved a difficult sell. Even the popularity of the 90-seat regional jet seems to be waning.
An interesting example of the impact of turboprops is seen at India-based SpiceJet. The airline operates in an environment which is very challenging. Internal India flights by jet airplanes incur onerous fuel taxation charges. The same airplane flying out of India does not attract these taxes. Airfares are not at levels that allow India’s airlines to make profits. There is also the ever-meddlesome India government forever trying to save state owned Air India. SpiceJet did something counter-intuitive. CEO Neil Mills spoke at the Terrapinn Low Cost Carrier Conference in Singapore last week and explained that they decided to add complexity by bringing in an extra aircraft. The airline had been flying Boeing 737-800s and added Q400s. The Q400s do not attract high fuel taxes and have proven themselves adept at providing service at many Indian airports too small to handle jets. Moreover, the Q400s have the range to fly some routes beyond India’s borders. SpiceJet’s finances have improved markedly.
The case favoring turboprops is also bolstered by ongoing high fuel costs outside India. Bombardier has seen sales success of its Q400s of late as airlines realize the benefit of high speed turboprops. Our research indicates that network airlines are especially attracted to the Q400 performance. Non-network airlines are attracted to the competitive pricing of ATR turboprops.
The Next Generation Turboprop
ATR has been talking about a 90-seat Next Generation Turboprop (NGT) for some time. The idea is to extend the current design and add much more powerful engines and updated systems. ATR has spoken of using a 5,000+ SHP engine from GE (GE38-1B as used on the Sikorsky CH-53K has 7,500 SHP), but Pratt & Whitney will also likely bid on this design. Below is a rendering of what the future ATR might look like.
The NGTs are likely to make extensive use of the flight deck technologies seen on pure jets such as Required Navigation Performance. ATR, as part of the EDS family, will almost certainly have the Airbus ProSky company Quovadis’ RNP package. The RNP system allows aircraft to fly precisely along a predefined route using on-board navigation systems and the GPS-based global navigation satellite system. Clearly this system helps reduce fuel burn and flying time – which is already an advantage for a turboprop over a jet. Since turboprops spend most of their time on shorter flights (~500 miles) time saved adds fast because of the many turns they do each day.
The next generation ATR will force Bombardier to react with its own updated airplane. Its Q400 is already called “next gen” in the company’s marketing information. But an ATR looking like the rendering above would require a significant response from Bombardier beyond its current offering.
At last year’s ISTAT conference, both OEMs publicly stated they could not make the economics of a 90-seat turboprop work. Here we are, nearly a year later, and ATR is pushing the idea. By deploying new materials and systems, ATR might have reached a tipping point where they can make the new, larger, turboprop work. If that is the case the competitive pressures ramp up not only for Bombardier but also for the various other turboprop programs being evaluated in South Korea and India.