Sunday, July 14, 2024

Comeback Time for Turboprops

By Bikram Vohra

Bikram Vohra, Consulting Editor IADB

Every now and then someone rings a knell for turboprops as a viable option. Like they are now passe and obsolete. But the genre perseveres and stakes its claim in the 90-seater and less segment.

Not just as creaky old models doing yeoman service but aircraft with advanced avionics, upgraded specs and fuel efficiency that makes them attractively profitable. The hybrid hydrogen turboprops which drive eight-bladed propellers with totally clean emissions have sparked a fair amount of interest. By the same token, Embraer is also working on a turboprop prototype in which India showed partnership interest.

A latest entry into this market is the Dornier328eco. The 40-seater is backed by the US-based Sierra Nevada Corporation (partner in NASA’s new Dream Chaser space plane) and German state funding. This updated version of the doughty 228 and 328 family will be available in 2025 and it has already had a launch customer in Private Wings.

Deutsche Aircraft is confident that the aircraft is a winner. Its selling points are several and the company endorsement says: We are ready to transform the way the world travels with our new-generation turboprop aircraft. By introducing advanced flight deck capabilities, a SAF-compatible airframe and more efficient engines, the D328eco will reduce our carbon footprint and change the way we fly.

It will feature a fuselage extended by 2.10 meters, capable of carrying ten passengers more than the base model, 43 in total now, and will be equipped with new engines and a new avionics suite.

Where Regionals are concerned India is a prime market and this version of the 328 with its environment friendly power plants could find favour in countries like India

One major and very positive impact comes from the Indian government’s boost to aviation. It has launched initiatives to develop new airports and upgrade existing ones, such as the Regional Connectivity Scheme (RCS) and the UDAN (Ude Desh ka Aam Naagrik) scheme. These travel options will increase regional connectivity and make air travel more accessible to people in remote and underserved areas.

The Indian government plans to operationalize 1000 UDAN routes during the currency of the schemes, an up from the present 517 routes across 76 airports.

One of the other aspects that requires attention is that of creating a turboprop fleet for regional access. According to ATR In the next 20 years the global turboprop demand should reach around 2,450 aircraft. Aircraft replacement will be a primary driver of demand over the next two decades, accounting for 1,500 new aircraft in service in 2041. India is again someone to woo especially if a manufacturer decides to put the plane together in the country.

History has shown us that the wrong aircraft on the wrong route can really bring an airline down to its knees. As such seriously considering 40-seater turboprops makes sense.

The country has also invested in modernizing its air traffic control systems to improve safety and efficiency. As more town pairings come into the picture low-capacity higher frequency connections will make for a robust network.

ATR goes on to make a valid point. Increasing fuel prices and carbon taxation combined with greater passenger demand for lower-emission travel, means in future the aviation industry will naturally favour low-carbon emitting aircraft, such as turboprops. This consideration could well be up there in Scindia’s mind. Alliance Air, FlyBig and Star Air are joined by Fly 91 and props could well be the best option. Alliance already has its ATR fleet and is doing well enough.

The ATR 42-600 is the perfect tool for the replacement of small turboprops and regional jets and is a frontrunner for Regionals. Thanks to its smaller capacity and low trip cost, the ATR 42-600 is perfectly suited to opening, developing and sustaining operations while delivering the best economics. Its strong commonalities with the ATR 72-600 give one the perfect combination to match capacity and demand.

Turboprop sales are poised to soar. ” We forecast that Asia Pacific, including China, requires more than 3000 aircraft under 150 seats in the next 20 years,” says Raul Villaron, Asia Pacific Vice President for Embraer Commercial Aviation. “Crossover jets like the E-Jets E2 and the first-generation E-Jets play an essential role. Embraer is also taking the lead in bringing back turboprops and is planning an aircraft that will fit the bill.

With the technical advancements, the concerns over noise levels, slower speeds and cabin discomfort have been largely addressed.

This is why turbos have not slipped off the table. From Bombardier’s Dash 8-Q for Quiet series and the CRJ to the Embraer 145 and the ATR 42/72 India could be making some very smart fleet selections for optimum profit.

Contrary to popular opinion the modern turbo-prop is only five minutes slower per hour of flying over 120 minutes.

The Pilatus PC-12, manufactured by Pilatus Aircraft, is another viable option.A single-engine turboprop it is known for its ruggedness, versatility, and ability to operate into smaller airstrips. With its executive interior and cargo-carrying capabilities, the PC-12 is popular in the business aviation, air ambulance, and regional transportation sectors.

And who can forget the rich legacy of De Havilland and the Dash 8. Sold to Bombardier in 1992 its planes from the classic Moth to the Comet have been milestones in the saga of aviation.

In 2019 when Longview bought it over it then revived the De Havilland Canada brand name. As of now over 500 Dash 8s are in service and the new owners plan to restart Dash8 manufacture from 2033 in the belief that props will be even more relevant.

Remember the success story of De Havilland Dash 8 series, including variants such as the Q100, Q200, Q300, and Q400, this versatile line of turboprop aircraft was specially designed for regional and short-haul operations. Renowned for their speed, range, and passenger comfort, these aircraft have been successful in the regional airline market and for specialized missions.

Turboprop aircraft are capable of operating from shorter runways and are more versatile in terms of the types of airfields they can access, including unpaved and grass airstrips. This makes them well-suited for operations into remote and undeveloped regions, such as in parts of Africa, Southeast Asia, and other developing areas.

As demand for regional and short-haul air travel continues to grow, especially in emerging markets and developing regions, there will be ongoing opportunities for turboprop aircraft to provide essential air connectivity to underserved communities. This sentiment is echoed in the Indian subcontinent and all these manufacturers have skin in the game.

Bikram Vohra is the Consulting Editor of Indian Aerospace & Defence.

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