More turboprops coming to the market - maybe

After the highly successful introduction of next generation turboprops in the mid 1980s, the continuing improvement of well known brands and the stubborn survival of two of the more popular programs – Bombardier’s Q series and ATR’s 42/72, more manufacturers are looking at entering the turboprop market, pinning their hopes on rising fuel costs and environmental concerns.

See related report: US regional market changes drive jet vs turboprop debate

Programs are under way in China, Russia and South Korea and both Bombardier and ATR are talking about the next generation of turboprop that, they say, could replace the regional jets that once replaced them. This is especially so given the improvements made in the last decade which puts their speed on par with regional jets with lower operating costs bringing a significant competitive advantage. It is especially significant that two legacy carriers – Alaska and American Eagle never dropped turbprops – while Continental has adopted them in the last few years as a way to grow their regional aircraft without breaking its pilot scope clause. In addition, markets that once could only sustain a 19 seater such as the Beech 1900 and Fairchild Metro are upgauging to the Bombardier Q200, once known as the de Havilland Dash 8, the Saab 340 and the Embraer Brasilia.

“Lower operating costs and the smaller ecological footprint of turboprops ensures that we are likely to see a resurgence in use of these aircraft, said AirInsight authors Erkan Pinar and Addison Schonland. Engine technology has provided enough power to operate at near jet speeds, at substantially lower fuel burn and with less pollution. Indeed a turboprop typically burns just under two thirds of the fuel needed to fly a passenger compared to a pure jet. It is generally accepted that for routes between 300 to 500 miles a turboprop is faster and more economical than a pure jet. Turboprops do not have to climb as high and therefore reach cruise faster and descend quicker.”

The two have produced a new report – The Renaissance of the Turboprop Airliner Market – examining the prospects for the breed and suggests they are strong. In addition, the report evaluates proposed programs coming from Russian and the Orient.

“It is no surprise that Bombardier is considering a stretched Q400, for now known as the Q400X, which could seat up to 90 passengers,” said Schonland and Pinar. “South Korea is proposing to build a 90-seat turboprop under an industry development plan that also seeks to press ahead with the KF-X fighter and KAH attack helicopter programs. The 2010-19 plan aims to raise South Korean aerospace turnover tenfold, making the country one of the top seven in the global industry, up from 16th now. It may be that aerospace is once again at a tipping point; after years of consolidation which saw brands disappear, it seems new brands are about to emerge. Even the Israelis have mentioned an interest in developing a small airliner, likely a turboprop. India is also talking about developing a ‘high speed turboprop’ in the 90+ seat category.”

They also suggested that 50-seat regional jets will ultimately abandon their markets, leaving them to a turboprop of like size. Even so, there is little interest in the below-60-seat market.

ATR42/EMB145/CRJ productivity comparison

The authors cited Bombardier’s forecast as reason enough to believe turboprops are on the way back. “It views the future as bigger airplanes – 60-seaters or bigger,” they said. “Clearly the 60-90 seat market is the sweet spot for turboprops. We are reasonably certain that a combination of industry entrants and ATR’s move to the 90-seat market will tip Bombardier’s hand. Indeed, just as this company has upset the Airbus/Boeing duopoly with its CSeries, it would be incredibly myopic not to expect the same moves developing below its own Q400.”

They also pointed to the design of the Bombardier landing gear – integrated into the engine nacelle – harkens back to the successful Fokker F27 and provides a ruggedness that the two called “unmatched in the industry.”

The two did not see much in the way of engine changes but did note developments in engine technology. “In terms of a ‘next generation’ turboprop engine, the top items getting attention are thermodynamic cycles which will impact material selection,” they said. “Certainly for the next engine to be accepted into service, manufacturers need to offer double digit improvements in fuel burn. Therefore focus will be on ever lighter materials to extract more power from lighter engines burning the same exotic blends of biofuels envisaged for turbofans.”

Schonland and Pinar cautioned, however, that the turboprop’s greatest competitor will likely be high-speed rail, which is already happening in Europe, which has driven even mainline airlines out of the most popular routes, and China where airline executives are complaining about the rapid growth of the mode. Such service is still a long way off in the US, but rarely a month goes buy that the Department of Transportation doesn’t herald some new advance in the progress of deploying high speed rail in America.

They also pointed to a very active market for “almost new" turboprops including those from Dornier, Fokker, Saab and BAe suggesting they would be in good condition if maintained by airlines to national safety standards.

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New competitors

The two primary players in the west may be joined by contenders from Ukraine and China, said Schonland and Pinar. But, any new entrant faces two very formidable competitors in the Canadian and French companies. Even so, newly developing programs may have fewer resource constraints then the veteran market leaders.

“The Chinese government has determined that the nation will be a global player in aerospace and consequently Xi'an Aircraft Industry Company is a name the industry will rapidly come familiar with,” said the report. “In the Ukraine an old stalwart, Antonov, soldiers on under tough times and resource constraints. We believe this company cannot yet be counted out as it has the innate ability to design and build new and innovative aircraft in this category. Moreover recently, Antonov agreed to enter into a joint venture with Russia’s UAC, potentially becoming a force again.”

Chinese Programs

The Chinese are moving from licensing programs from Western manufacturers such as McDonnell-Douglas, Antonov and, more recently, Embraer which has its 50-seat regional jet being manufactured in China. “China has earned a reputation is being quite liberal with the intellectual property of others, most notably Russian aerospace technology,” said the authors. “More recently indigenous designs have been forthcoming - but there are manifestly copied aircraft being seen as well.”

They pointed to the 50-seat MA-60, manufactured by the Xi'an Aircraft Industry Company, as the beginning of Chinese turboprop programs, saying it borrowed extensively from the AN-24/28 but with a similar performance to the first generation western turboprops because of its Pratt & Whitney engines.  Only 122 were built, though. That was followed with a stretch seating 60-passengers.

“They said it had a higher payload yet was 300kg lighter, and, if they are to be believed, 40% more fuel efficient than turbofan aircraft of equivalent size,” said Pinar and Schonland. “China's Aerospace Industry Research Centre forecasts that 5,300 to 5,500 regional aircraft would be needed in the next 20 years, of which 1,900 would be turboprops. Indeed, Xi'an has announced plans for another turboprop to be called the MA700, which should seat 70. That aircraft is reportedly quite a different design that the earlier aircraft. This could mean an entirely domestic Chinese design, but to date even the Comac 919, which is supposed to be an entirely China design, looks remarkably like the Airbus 320. Similarly, the ARJ21 is essentially an updated DC-9. Reports from China, state that the MA700 will make significant use of composites. The MA700 will compete directly with the ATR 72 and Q400. This means the aircraft will face the west's latest turboprops and consequently have to offer at least similar performance.” The use of composites is not surprising since the Chinese are suppliers on the Bombardier CSeries.

Pinar and Schonland said observers who the Chinese designs do so at their peril, citing Airbus China’s delivery of 11 A320s within schedule with Airbus singing the praises of the aircraft as “Airbus quality.”

“The message is clear, China is a rising force in commercial aviation,” the two said. “Though its current designs may borrow heavily from other programs, China has the ability to develop its own designs. The nation's aerospace industry has a rich heritage of building aircraft under license or building unlicensed copies. Each program's lessons have led to a rising knowledge base consequently we expect to see China play a significant role in the turboprop market within a decade. This means not only seeing many of these aircraft flying within China, but also at customer airlines in Southeast Asia and Africa.”

Antonov on the other hand, crippled by the post-Soviet era, has been resilient in the past, enough so, said the authors, as not to be counted out too quickly. They cited the number of its aircraft across Africa where they have proven reliable in the most hostile circumstances. Despite its problems, it has continued to develop programs, said the report, including the 70- to 80-seat An-148 jet. “The price is between USD18-20 million and the company claims direct operating costs will be 25-30% lower than the Embraer 170,” they said. “Clearly, Antonov has the capability, even with significant resource constraints, to produce compelling airplanes even if they often do resemble Western aircraft to a T. The An-148 looks clearly like the child of a BAe 146/Avro and a Dornier 328 jet. Both designs were visionary and had compelling arguments in their respective markets, so why not take up the idea and built on it? If Antonov were to identify the turboprop as a market that it could compete in and win, the firm should be expected to offer robust and low-cost designs. Therefore Antonov should be, at minimum, considered a potential supplier.” The authors also pointed to the developing joint venture between Antonov and Russia’s United Aerospace Company which could provide more stable resources for the company.

Emerging Programs

The report went on to discuss programs in South Korea and India. The 90-seat offering from South Korea was described as a strategic program by the South Korean Knowledge Economy Ministry, Schonland and Pinar, pointed out, adding it remains unclear whether Parliament will approve of such a program. It is so early in the game, they said, that the configuration and design will come later although it will be turboprop.

“The project apparently replaced the 60-seat regional jet Korea Aerospace was working on in 2008,” they said. “There can be no doubt that these emerging programs are spurring on ATR and Bombardier to move ahead with their own programs to raise capacity to nearly 100 seats in next generation programs.”

Needing a partner for the program would likely mean participation from GE or Pratt which have moved in to help other emerging programs in China, according to the report.

The RTA-70 is the name given the Indian program, reportedly to be produced by Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) and the National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL) as part of a joint design and development program. Development costs are said to exceed USD4 billion and is expected to roll out for certification is six to seven years. It will, of course, cater to regional Indian routes between 600km and 800km, according to the report, which added that NAL is already in discussion with Pratt and GE.

But, the rocky history of aviation programs in India puts plenty of doubt in the mix. The likelihood the program will come to fruition is clouded, according to the report, by recommendations in 2008 by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG), which audits and assists state and central institutions on accounts and accountability, that NAL defer the 50- to 70-seater on account of delays on its 15-seater Saras aircraft. 

"Keeping in view the problems faced by NAL in HANSA (a two-seater trainer flown at flying clubs) and SARAS (a 14-seater project in the works for two decades,” said Schonland and Pinar, noting it is suspended until an inquiry is completed into the crash of a prototype, “Other problems have are related to marketing of the aircraft, difficulties in finding an industrial partner and lack of specialised manpower. NAL may review initiation of the new project for development of a 70-seat aircraft."

They pointed to statements made by NAL Chair G. Madhavan Nair, former head of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), that the project would be an independent commercial venture with both public and private partners. He suggested one partner would include an overseas aerospace firm. Despite the fact that it hasn’t even reached the design phase, goals for the new aircraft include 30% lower fuel burn than today’s aircraft and 50% lower maintenance costs while advanced technology would enable 25% lower acquisition and operating costs.

It is clear that the two Western competitors – Bombardier and ATR – will ultimately face competition for a market that seems to be on the rise. However, the questions surrounding proposed turboprop airliners around the world will leave them in the catbird seat, it seems, for some time.

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