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May 26, 2024
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It seems that we are always on the cusp of the time for turboprops. The technology is mature and well-understood.  Yet we don’t see the level of demand for these aircraft one might expect. After all, they are more fuel efficient than jets and can easily operate as alternatives to (aging) regional jets.  So, where is the industry on turboprops?

Innovations All Over
Earlier this week, Alaska Airlines donated a retired Dash8 to ZeroAvia.  ZeroAvia debuted its breakthrough multi-megawatt modular electric motor system in a 1.8MW prototype configuration at the event.

It is demonstrated aboard ZeroAvia’s 15-ton HyperTruck ground-test rig. Combined with higher-temperature PEM fuel cells and advanced power electronics – both technologies that ZeroAvia is developing in-house – the leading-edge electric motor technology is one of three key building blocks for enabling commercially-relevant hydrogen fuel cell engines for larger aircraft.

Not only does hydrogen offer yet another leg-up to turboprops.  There are several projects underway testing battery power, such as Eviation and an actual operating airline, Harbour AIr.   Both programs utilize an electric motor from magNix. Another new player in the space is Swedish Heart Aerospace.

But even as we see several new ideas and innovations, there is cause for curbing enthusiasm.  Embraer, an aircraft OEM with the credentials to deliver a turboprop with state-of-the-art technologies, has paused its program.  In 2022 this project looked like it was close to being launched.  The concepts are well thought out, and the proposed aircraft range stretches from personal to commercial.

Even though Embraer has slowed its commercial program, the Ipanema, a crop duster, shows it is considering other ideas.  Embraer is bullish on the market, though. In its 2022 Market Outlook, Embraer indicated that short-haul operations generate demand for 2,280 turboprops.  Asia-Pacific, Europe, and North America represent the markets with the most demand. Embraer notes that the number of 70-seater turboprops has more than doubled since 2010 in Australia and the Pacific Islands.

Market Size
Exactly how big is the market for turboprops? Using the ch-Aviation fleet database, there are over 4,700 replaceable aircraft .  Moreover, looking at the age, there is clearly a good opportunity.

We understand that the supplier base drives Embraer’s pause.  The OEM would not be drawn on identifying which suppliers, but we think it’s the engines.  Embraer named two engine makers it is considering.  Both engine makers are looking at hybrid solutions.  While Eviation has selected the magNix motor, more power is needed for larger aircraft.

Of these aircraft, 77% are used for passenger service.  The following table lays out the market opportunity. Generally, these are rapidly aging airplanes.  The largest models are the youngest.  Notice that the average age jumps below 50 seats.  And that may be the market opportunity to focus on.

Defining the under 50-sat market as a subset, the opportunity is for replacing over 2,000 aircraft.  This is 90% of Embraer’s market estimate.  And close to half this opportunity lies between 36 and 50 seats.

Engine Technologies
The challenge is not the extent of the market.  The challenge is getting the right power solution.  Hybrids are not ready.  Hydrogen is not ready, and for sure, batteries are not ready.  Embraer has stated it has a lot of interest in its program; Commercial Aviation Chief Executive Arjan Meijer said they letters of intent for “250-plus” aircraft.  Heart Aerospace has over 230 orders

The commercial interest in a next generation turboprop is self-evident.  Two OEMs have about 500 aircraft ready for deals.  These are all likely to be under 50-seaters – probably 30 seats maximum.  But what about the other ~1,500?  We will discuss this in Part 2.

author avatar
Addison Schonland
Co-Founder AirInsight. My previous life includes stints at Shell South Africa, CIC Research, and PA Consulting. Got bitten by the aviation bug and ended up an Avgeek. Then the data bug got me, making me a curious Avgeek seeking data-driven logic. Also, I appreciate conversations with smart people from whom I learn so much. Summary: I am very fortunate to work with and converse with great people.

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