Will Turboprop Planes Make a Comeback in America?
PHOTO: Turboprop planes like the ATR 72-600, pictured, could see a comeback in the United States on shorter routes. (Photo courtesy of ATR)
Turboprop airplanes seem like a thing of the past, especially in countries like the United States, where jets are used on even the shortest routes. However, according to manufacturer ATR, which specializes in propeller-driven aircraft, there is renewed interest in the U.S.
Based in France, ATR's products are popular in other parts of the world and are a major part of the short-haul fleets for Air France and Air India. Now, the manufacturer is trying to entice major mainland U.S. airlines to purchase its products. The main selling point: it makes financial sense to fly turboprops on short routes.
The perfect replacement?
ATR’s airplanes were once popular with regional carriers in America, but they were replaced by jet aircraft during the 1990s and early 2000s. Now, however, airlines are trying to get rid of their shortest-range jets because they are concerned about higher fuel costs and they do not like the lack of flexibility of these planes, with their limited seating capacity and relatively high fuel costs.
ATR thinks that its newest model, the ATR 72-600, can give airlines what they are looking for when it comes to serving short routes. The 72-600 can seat about 50 people. This means that even in markets were demand is relatively low, airlines would be able to fill the planes. Also, because turboprops burn less fuel, operating costs would be very low compared to jet-driven aircraft.
For ATR, the sweet spot for operating costs is on routes between 100 and 300 miles. Turboprops are slower than jets, but on routes of this length, the difference in flight time would only be a few minutes. The lower costs would more than make up for the longer travel time.
Who would buy the 72-600?
Some airlines are phasing out their older regional jets, and some are simply selling the short-haul aircraft that they no longer have a use for because they have already dropped unprofitable regional routes. Turboprops could be ideal in both these situations.
Airlines could want to replace their smaller jets with a cheaper alternative. ATR planes’ lower fuel costs would be very attractive at a time when major airlines and their regional affiliates are trying to improve their unit revenue figures. Turboprops provide the right formula for doing this: fewer seats to fill and lower operating costs.
Also, airline have dropped some of their less-profitable routes between regional airports and major international hubs. With planes like the ATR 72, it could be financially feasible to not only restart these services, but also make a profit from them. This is especially attractive to regional carriers, who are struggling with operational issues and looking for ways to get back on track financially.
Changing a negative image
Turboprops have a negative image amongst fliers. Many consider them cramped and noisy and a step down from even older regional jets. However, ATR’s global sales director, John Moore, recently told the media that the new ATR 72-600 can provide the same kind of flying experience as the regional jets that it is meant to replace. “That’s why we want to show the product to the airlines. They can see this is truly a cabin-class aircraft with good baggage space that can offer a similar product to their customers.”
From a cost standpoint, ATR’s obviously make sense for regional flights. The big questions is: will airlines in the U.S. agree that the new turboprops will provide the kind of experience that they want to give their customers?
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