- The Washington Times - Monday, March 24, 2008

BRUSSELS (AP) - As fuel prices soar to record highs and airlines struggle to maintain profitability, the unglamorous but fuel-efficient turboprop regional airliner is making a remarkable comeback.

The revival of the propeller-driven planes, which typically consume a quarter to a third less fuel than equivalent jets, marks a significant trend in the industry. Until recently, many commuter airlines had been determined to consign the planes to history and convert to all-jet fleets that offer greater passenger comfort.

Although the latest generation of turboprops has addressed some of the comfort issues by flying above turbulence and providing quieter cabins, analysts say, the airlines’ financial concerns now outweigh any passenger preferences.

With jet fuel prices 60 percent to 70 percent higher than a year ago, regional jets no longer offer good economics for short-haul flights, said Michael Dyment, an aviation analyst at Nexa Capital Partners, a corporate finance group in Washington.

“Nowadays, operating efficiency trumps any passenger considerations,” Mr. Dyment said.

The world’s remaining manufacturers of turboprops for commuter airlines, Canada’s Bombardier and France’s ATR, have ramped up production to 140 of the planes this year, after making 100 deliveries in 2007. This compares with 26 in 2002.

“There has been a clear reversal of trends in the regional airline business over the past three to four years,” said Richard Maslem, an editor of Airliner World, a British trade magazine.

“Airlines that only a short time ago were championing the cause for the regional jet and suggesting the end of the line for turboprop models are now having to eat their words,” he said.

The regional sector as a whole experienced a boom, with traffic growth estimated at almost 8 percent last year, ranging from 3.1 percent in the United States to more than 9 percent in China.

While jets such as the Embraer E-series still topped the delivery list, the upsurge was led by turboprops, which accumulated 210 orders from clients worldwide.

The 1950s-era Fokker 27 was typical of the first generation of short-haul airliners with gas turbine engines driving propellers, which acquired a reputation for fuel economy and ruggedness.

Passengers, however, hated the propeller noise, vibrating cabins and susceptibility to turbulence at low altitudes.

As the next generation was entering service in the 1980s, many feeder airlines favored speedier and quieter 30- to 70-seat jets, such as those produced by Brazil’s Embraer. This sparked predictions that they eventually would replace the turboprops.

By the beginning of the millennium, several turboprop manufacturers — including Fokker and Saab — either had declared bankruptcy or abandoned production of turboprops, leaving Bombardier ATR as the only major turboprop manufacturer.

But tight economic times have revived demand for the propeller craft over the past couple of years. A report by the market research firm Forecast International attributed this to the need by regional airlines to cut costs and reduce fares in the face of competition from low-fare carriers.

Jet fuel in the United States now averages $3.70 a gallon, double the price a year ago.

Local airlines, which generally are run on slim margins, routinely resort to fuel-saving measures such as taxiing out on a single engine and coasting to landings by idling the engines.

With market interest growing, Bombardier is evaluating proposals to extend its existing 78-seat Q400 to 90 seats, and its French rival is considering a new aircraft rather than adding to its existing 70-seat ATR 72. The new models also would have advanced noise- and vibration-suppression systems and would fly at higher cruising altitudes than their forerunners, offering in-flight comfort levels comparable to jets.

The stakes are high for both companies, because analysts predict a requirement of nearly 1,500 regional aircraft from 2007 through 2016 to keep up with projected demand.

“What has happened with new-generation turboprops is on short flights and with a smaller capacity they can open up or sustain markets that jets cannot. So you get the best of both worlds: comfort for passengers and financial viability for the airline operator because of the 30 percent lower per seat costs,” said John Strickland, director of JLS Consulting, a London-based aviation consultancy firm.

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