Fuel-Efficient Turboprop Airliners Stage A Surprise Comeback
By James Grahame
I used to fly a lot. My least favorite aircraft was the DeHavilland Dash-8, a noisy twin-engine turboprop commuter plane that has the ability to transform a quick 45 minute jet flight into 90 minutes of stupefying rattle and hum.
I reacted to repeated Dash-8 exposure by becoming a huge fan of a regional airline that flew nothing but chunky 737 jets, even on half hour flights. I wasn't alone. By 2000, airlines around the world responded to customer demand by replacing shuddery turboprops with sleek new regional jets from Bombardier and Embraer. It looked like the turboprop era had come to an end.
However, the lowly propeller is set to make a comeback. Jet fuel prices have soared as much as 70% over the past 12 months. Suddenly, regional jets don't make economic sense on many short-haul flights. Turboprop aircraft such as Bombardier's 78-seat Q400 now have per-seat costs of around 30% less than comparable jets. That's a lot of money, especially in the perpetually struggling airline industry.
The result is renewed airline interest in turboprop designs out of economic necessity - passenger comfort be damned. Canadian manufacturer Bombardier is considering stretching its Q400 design to accommodate 90 seats, and French/Italian manufacturer ATR is looking into a larger design to follow up its successful 74-seat ATR-72-500 model. Steven Ridolfi, President, Bombardier Regional Aircraft, succinctly sums up the turboprop advantage: "At 360 knots, the Q400 airliner combines jet-like speed with among the lowest operating costs of any regional aircraft."
It will be interesting to see what the next few years bring. One thing's for sure: Propeller-driven aircraft aren't going to vanish anytime soon.