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A Q400X turboprop bodes well for Bombardier

On 19th October, 2011, Air New Zealand (ANZ) announced an order for 7 new ATR 72-600 aircraft plus five options for growth of its domestic regional operations. The airline stated that while it had given consideration to both Bombardier and ATR for this latest order, it had chosen the ATR aircraft due to its superior fuel burn performance and optimisation for operations in poor weather conditions. Air New Zealand’s regional operations are currently operated by a mix of 11 ATR 72-500 and 23 Bombardier Dash 8 Q300 aircraft amongst others. Yet despite this split fleet, Air New Zealand has chosen to utilise ATR’s aircraft for its future.

Air New Zealand’s choice of ATR as their regional partner hints at a broader trend across the regional airline industry. Over the course of 2011, ATR has beaten Bombardier on numerous head-to-head request for proposals (RFPs), winning 116 orders for its ATR 72 turboprop versus only 21 orders for Bombardier’s Q400. Within those 116 orders, 49 have been placed for the current generation ATR 72-500, while 67 orders have been placed for the next-generation ATR 72-600, which features a new cabin layout with larger overhead bins, improved seating and a cockpit including required navigation performance (RNP) technology, as well as improvements in fuel burn and maintenance costs over the ATR 72-500.

In fact, besides SpiceJet’s order for 15 Q400 aircraft which is reportedly considering converting its 15 commitments into firm orders, Bombardier has not won a significant order for its Q400 aircraft since Jazz, an Air Canada regional partner, ordered 15 examples in late 2010. However, despite the dearth of recent sales,Aspire Aviation does expect that Bombardier could win a significant number of orders for its turboprops over the next five years, especially if the carrier were to launch a re-engined Q400, dubbed the Q400X, or potentially a new 90-100 seat turboprop that has been tentatively called the Q700.

Image Courtesy of Bombardier

It is Aspire Aviation’s view that current fleets of regional jet aircraft, especially for feed of full-service hubs in the United States and potentially Europe, are likely to be partially replaced by regional turboprops, even in light of Embraer’s recent decision to re-engine its popular E-Series aircraft.

In the United States, a large portion of the hub operations of full-service carriers are currently operated by regional partners on a capacity purchase agreement (CPA) basis. More often than not, these CPA agreements involve the operation of 50-seat regional jets such as Embraer’s ERJ-145s or Bombardier’s CRJ-200s. At certain airlines, CPA agreements are also in place for 65+ seat aircraft such as Bombardier’s CRJ-700 or Embraer’s E-170 family.

However, recent competitive trends domestically and the natural increase in employee costs over time for legacy airlines, have led US legacies to increase pressure on their regional partners to provide cost savings on CPA flying. Yet the regional carriers are grappling with many of the same issues that plague the legacies, including almost as high employee costs on a seat-mile basis. Perhaps their best option to reduce operating costs and meet the demands of their legacy partners is to reduce fuel and maintenance costs. The current fleet of regional jets is ageing and fuel thirsty; thus replacing this fleet might be the most viable method of reducing regional operating costs. Simply replacing these regional jets with more regional jets would improve direct maintenance costs. However, such an action would not enact very significant fuel cost reductions. Bombardier and Embraer have both cancelled their 50-seat regional jet programmes entirely, and their 70-seat jet programmes are currently selling at depressed rates relative to the purchase boom seen in the earlier part of this decade. Given these constraints, replacing these aircraft with turboprops such as the Q400, and especially a next generation Q400X, could boost profitability and margins at struggling US regional carriers.

Turboprops, by their very nature have slower cruise speeds than comparable regional jet aircraft. However, due to their lower cruising altitude and resultant reduced ascent and descent times, turboprops are actually faster than jets on shorter routes. For example, it is Aspire Aviation’s understanding that the Q400, with its roughly 360 knots cruising speed currently operates at relative air time parity with much faster regional jets on segments of 450 miles or less. Thus we estimate that a re-engined Q400X with cruise speed of close to 400 knots would be able to match regional jets on a time basis over distances of up to 800 miles, and would not face much of a time penalty on routes of up to 1,000 miles. Aspire Aviation has compiled data from the US Department of Transportation (DOT) that shows that a large portion of current regional jet operations in the US fall into the aforementioned distance categories.

A/C

% of Flights <500 mi

% of Flights 500-1000 mi

CRJ-200

73.04%

26.80%

ERJ-145

54.76%

41.16%

CRJ-700

37.36%

48.06%

E170

51.14%

38.14%

Source: US DOT Form 41 Traffic Data

Utilising turboprops to replace regional jets offers multiple advantages. Firstly, the fuel burn of the current generation turboprops is far better than that of regional jets, a distinction that would be only magnified by the introduction of a re-engined or next-generation turboprop. Such a turboprop as the US DOT Form 41 data indicates, would possess an operating cost advantage of 10%-25% versus regional jets, and a fuel burn advantage per block hour of close to 50%. Secondly, turboprops are able to serve smaller airports more efficiently. Over the past 4 years, US regional carriers have cut flights to numerous destinations, citing high operating costs for the regional jets primarily used to serve these routes. With more efficient turboprops in play, some of these airports might become viable spoke destinations yet again. Furthermore, the runway length required by turboprops carrying a full payload to take off is often less than that of fully-loaded regional jets. There are certain destinations, especially in mountain resorts such as Aspen and internationally such as those in the Caribbean that can only be served with 50+ seat turboprops, not regional jets.

The use of turboprops as feeder aircraft is not an entirely newfangled concept. For many years, US carriers operated smaller turboprop aircraft under “Express” or “Connection” branding for regional feed purposes. While the majority of these smaller turboprops have been retired, there remain a few major turboprop operations in the United States. American Eagle Airlines and Colgan Air operate ATR 72-200s and a variety of Bombardier Dash 8 including the Q400 aircraft, respectively. Numerous other carriers operate smaller versions of the Dash 8 as well. And perhaps most pertinent to a discussion of regional jet replacement is Horizon Air, regional partner of Alaska Airlines. Up until 2010, Horizon Air had operated a mixed fleet of Dash 8 Q400 and CRJ-700 aircraft providing feed to Alaska Airlines’ hubs in Seattle and Portland. However, in the face of mounting operational losses, the carrier decided in 2010 to convert its operation to solely operate turboprop Q400 equipment, stating that the fuel efficient Q400s were more economical feed aircraft than their own regional jets. Given that Horizon’s average stage length in the Western United States is longer than that of many regional carriers Eastern US, their conversion provides compelling evidence that Q400s can in fact function as effective feeders to modern hubs.

Perhaps the best indicator of the potential of turboprops to replace regional jets can be found in the actions of SkyWest Inc. SkyWest Inc, which is comprised of US regional carriers Atlantic Southeast Airlines (ASA) and ExpressJet which are now merged, as well as SkyWest Airlines, is the single largest CPA carrier in the United States, operating a fleet of 705 aircraft in partnership with United Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and Alaska Airlines. Currently, the carrier’s only turboprops are 48 thirty seats Embraer EMB-120 Brasilias, which are partially operated on behalf of United Airlines with a few being utilised on a stand-alone, at-risk basis. However, during SkyWest’s 2011 third-quarter financial results conference call, company executives stated that they had issued an RFP for fleet replacement during the previous calendar year, and that negotiations with various manufacturers were going “very well.” If SkyWest were to elect to order a certain number of turboprops as part of its overall fleet replacement, it would provide strong indication that replacement of regional jets is a new market for turboprops.

For reasons that will be outlined below, Aspire Aviation feels that the Bombardier Q400 and its future derivatives are more adequate replacements for regional jets than the ATR 72 or its future derivatives:

Operating cost
Aspire Aviation has used 2010 US Department of Transportation (DOT) financial reports to compile the following data on the operating costs of the turboprops, as well as the major 50 and 70 seats jets operated by US airlines.

Hourly Cost

Fuel Ops

Total Direct Maintenance

Total Air Ops

ATR 72

0.85

1.70

1.26

Q400

1.00

1.00

1.00

CRJ 200

2.17

0.80

1.48

E145

1.95

0.96

1.22

CRJ 700

1.75

1.07

1.19

E170

1.69

1.14

1.11

Notes: All data is per seat per flight hour
Data mentioned above is solely for ATR 72-200; there are no US operators of the ATR 72-500 and -600
The Q400 was used as the benchmark to which the other aircraft are compared; all data is in relative terms
Seat counts used: 72 for ATR 72, 78 for Q400, 50 for CRJ-200 and ERJ-145, and 76 for CRJ-700 and E 170

On a head-to-head basis, the ATR is more fuel efficient per seat than the Q400 by about 15%, however its direct operating costs (DOC = cash operating cost (COC) + cost of capitals) are close to 25% higher, in large part due to maintenance costs. However, the ATR 72 fleet in the US is generally much older and composed of the -200 series aircraft, which could partially explain the large maintenance cost disparity. Still, these figures partially affirm an oft-rumored occurrence – the ATR 72, while being more fuel efficient, is not always cheaper to operate than the Q400s.

Moreover, the ATR 72 is not truly a viable replacement for regional jets in the United States, as its low speed even with a next-generation replacement limits its capability to effectively feed US regional jet hubs. Meanwhile a new Q400X aircraft could cruise at speeds close to 400 knots, allowing it to more effectively replace regional jets in the US, especially on routes of under 800 miles.

The data indicates that the Q400 easily holds a 10-20% operating cost margin over the current generation of regional jets, and a 50-80% fuel efficiency margin as well. This gives Bombardier significant leeway in developing the Q400X, as they can trade a certain amount of fuel efficiency to maximise the cruising speed.

The data referenced above is for the year 2010. In 2011, however, the fuel price has risen more than 30% year over year. For these 5 aircraft excluding ATR turboprops, fuel makes up somewhere between 40% and 50% of total operating costs. So under current fuel conditions, the Q400X becomes even more attractive as a replacement aircraft.

Image Courtesy of The Wings and Wheels

New turboprop technologies
Both Bombardier and ATR have indicated their interests in doing a next-generation turboprop. ATR appears to favour a 90-seat revamped version of their ATR 72-600 optimised for a lowest specific fuel consumption (SFC), while Bombardier is vacillating between a modified version of their Q400 NextGen dubbed the Q400X, or an all-new 70-100 seats turboprop.

On modern turboprops, by far the dominant engine is Pratt & Whitney Canada (P&WC)’s PW100 series, which is used on both the ATR 72 and the Q400 NextGen. The ATR 72 uses the PW127 series, which holds a maximum continuous rating of roughly 2,600 shaft horsepower (shp).The Q400 NextGen meanwhile uses the 5000 shp PW150 engines. But a next-generation turboprop would require new engines, especially if the capacity is scaled up to 90 seats.

General Electric (GE) is already in advanced talks with numerous airframers about a new turboprop engine. Tentatively dubbed the CPX38, GE’s new engine would be based on its GE38 engine, which is used on Sikorsky Aircraft’s CH53K helicopter ordered by the US Marine Corps., the first of which has already entered final assembly. The 3 GE38 engines on each CH53K are rated at 7,500 shp, but the proposed CPX38 would be in the 5,000 shp class. GE has not yet officially launched a CPX38 programme, but has indicated that it could quickly launch such a programme with an entry into service (EIS) in 2015-2016 timeframe due to the common core with the GE38. Targeting a 15% specific fuel consumption (SFC) improvement over the current-generation turboprop engines, the CPX38 is also expected to feature an integrated propulsion system of the propeller, engine, and nacelles. Integrated propulsion systems improve engine reliability and efficiency, and contribute to SFC reductions as well.

Pratt & Whitney Canada (P&WC)’s next-generation offering is also expected to utilise an integrated propulsion system. The engine maker is targeting a 20% reduction in engine fuel burn over the PW100/150 series engines that power both the ATR 72 and the Q400 NextGen. Part of the planned fuel burn reduction is expected to come from the use of technology first developed for Pratt’s geared turbofan engine for narrowbody jet aircraft.  P&WC has already tested the first components of its new engine this year, and expects to launch the product after conducting a full core test by the end of 2012. The new engine’s core will break its existing commonality with the PW100 series and as such the entry into service (EIS) is expected to be in 2016 or beyond. While GE has committed itself to a 5,000 shp class engine, P&WC has left the door open to an engine anywhere between 5,000-7,000 shp.

ATR has already stated its preference for a 90-seat next-generation turboprop. The EADS-Alenia joint venture is currently conducting studies for a new turboprop in addition to holding advanced discussions with both GE and P&WC regarding powerplants development. The airframer expects to propose a 90-seat turboprop to its board of directors in mid to late-2012 and plans for a 2016 EIS. Earlier this year Alenia’s chief executive Giuseppe Giordo told flightglobal that Alenia will launch a 90-seat turboprop programme regardless of whether EADS decides to or not, claiming that the Finmeccanica subsidiary has the capability to build its own large turboprop in Italy. ATR chief executive Filippo Bagnato has given indications that ATR’s 90-seat turboprop, if launched, will be optimised for SFC much like the current-generation ATR 72, and contain only the requisite speed increases to bring the aircraft to parity with jet aircraft on missions between 300-350 nautical miles (nm), with a cruising speed of around 300-320 knots. This speed increase will come in part due to the increased thrust of the newest generation of engines, whichever powerplant ATR chooses will be rated at at least 5,000 shp when compared to the 2,619 shp of the current ATR 72’s engine. While such a 90-seat development would be optimal for the vast majority of regional airlines around the globe, the cruising speed increases would not be enough to effectively replace regional jets, especially in the United States.

Bombardier meanwhile has left itself more flextibility with regards to its next-generation turboprop development. The manufacturer has no firm plans in place, but has pitched a 70-100 seats turboprop. While Aspire Aviation is not privy to the details of these proposals, for such an aircraft to effectively replace regional jets, the cruising speed of the new turboprop would have to be upgraded to around 400 knots. Because turboprops fly at lower altitudes than regional jets and as such have faster climb and descent times, a turboprop capable of cruising at around 400 knots would be close to flight time parity with regional jets on flights of up to 800 miles.

If Bombardier chooses to develop a 70-80 seat turboprop with higher cruise speed, they could conceivably use a 5,000 shp powerplant from either GE or P&WC. However, a 90-100 seats turboprop would need engines in the 6,000-7,000 shp range in order to increase the maximum take-off weight (MTOW) to handle 90-100 passengers as well as maintaining a cruising speed of 400 knots-plus. The increased MTOW of a 90-100 seats aircraft would likely necessitate a specific fuel consumption (SFC) increase which is partially offset by the increased fuel efficiency of the engine due to the added weight, an effect that would be especially pronounced if the cruise speed is up-gauged. This increase in engine fuel burn could number as large as 5%-7%, which would reduce the competitiveness of Bombardier’s next-generation turboprop when an ATR next-generation turboprop is optimised for a maximum fuel efficiency. Given that both ATR and Bombardier have estimated that the demand for turboprops in traditional roles over the next 20 years numbers greater than 1,500 frames, Bombardier can-ill afford to have any significant rise in the fuel burn of its Q400 successor. Thus Bombardier will have to implement significant weight reductions in order for its aircraft to remain competitive, potentially ruling out a simple re-engining of the Q400 NextGen.

Image Courtesy of ATR

In theory, Bombardier could make use of composite materials to enact such weight reductions albeit that path is fraught with significant risk. While the weight reduction potential is great, Bombardier also has to weigh the added costs of composite manufacturing, which is significant on a US$28 million aircraft at list price.

Notwithstanding this, the new generation turboprop from Bombardier will have significant fuel burn advantage over regional jets which Aspire Aviation estimates at 55%-60%. And that fuel burn advantage in and of itself gives the Q400 a significant advantage in the battle for fleet replacement, even if the differential is potentially cut to 35%-40% by a re-engined E-Series family aircraft.

Make no mistake, Aspire Aviation does not necessarily believe that the Q400 and its successors will necessarily overtake the ATR 72 in overall turboprop sales. The ATR 72 family remains optimised for fuel burn and given that the major source of growth in traditional turboprop sales is occurring in developing markets such as India and China where fuel prices are high, the ATR 72 is likely to retain a sales edge over the Q400 and possibly the Q400X aircraft. Aspire Aviation thinks that regional jet replacement could allow Bombardier to narrow the sales gap with ATR, however.

Over the past 3 years, the economics of regional jets have been put into questions by high fuel prices. Bygone were the days when Delta Air Lines operated 400 flights a day out of Cincinnati on CRJ-200s which was a viable operation at the time. Regional airline executives have to think boldly in order to ensure the viability of their capacity purchase agreement (CPA) operations. Furthermore, given the large fixed cost constraints of an airline operation, reducing aircraft operating costs with turboprops replacing regional jets is the best way, in Aspire Aviation‘s view, to achieve a meaningful cost reduction. The Q400X would offer an optimal solution with lower fuel burn which reduces operating costs and manageable cruising speed of 360 knots plus, if not better with a next-generation derivative. Therefore Aspire Aviation predicts that turboprop aircraft could potentially represent up to half of the future regional flying in the US. Perhaps 10 years from now, major US airline hubs will be littered with next-generation Q400s and Q400Xs, a veritable “Back to the Future” moment.

11 Comments

  1. keesje November 23, 2011 Reply

    Vinay interesting tpic and article. I have been waiting to see more detail on what ATR depicts as the “-900″ for 2 years. I’m not sure it will be just ATR 72 stretch. It could very well be 5 abreast with a further stretch above 100 seat engineered in.

    When fuel prices rise further, even bigger props are not unlikely for shorter flights, look at western europe 300 million people within a circle of 400nm.. China has similar areas where speed is much less important.

    I did a concept earlier this yr around a 150 seat high density turboprop, optimized for low cost per unit. 7 abreast semi standing seats, 11000shp TP400 class engines, counter rotating props etc. M.7 should be possible, just like the A400M.

    http://www.kaktusdigital.com/images/TL_V02.jpg

    pprune with more pictures:
    http://www.pprune.org/tech-log/445308-ecr-20-200-seater-optimized-flights-700-nm.html

    • Author
      Vinay Bhaskara November 26, 2011 Reply

      Keesje,

      Sorry for the late response.

      5 abreast economics on a turboprop would be interesting, but the complexity of widening the cabin would push such a project into the 2020-2025 EIS range.

      Western EU, China, Japan, NE US, Turkey; the number of markets where TP’s would be useful is quite large

      If you’re running contra rotating props, you could probably get closer to M.8 depending on the fuel burn penalty you’re willing to give up. The Russians get their’s up to 500 kts+!

  2. keesje November 26, 2011 Reply

    Vinay, Bomardier has a new 5 abreast fuselage under development for the C, it will be build in China. So they “only” have to do a new wingbox/wing, big engine & tail ;) As you wrote engines are under development which is crusial.

    • Author
      Vinay Bhaskara November 28, 2011 Reply

      I’m not sure you can use the C-Series fuselage for a TP, you’d sacrifice a good chunk of payload range for the increased weight. Bombardier needs at least one of the next gen engines to be in the 7500 shp class or so; otherwise they likely won’t be able to increase payload all that much without pushing the ATR–72 to an even further fuel burn advantage.

  3. Todd November 28, 2011 Reply

    This was a great article and the analysis is excellent. Given the lack-luster response to the C-series the money may have been better spent on a new or lengthened turboprop, but at the same time I think the Q400 continues to suffer from an image problem from the SAS incidents years back. I do think it’s just a matter of time before a regional LCC tries it’s hand at a mostly turbo-prop fleet, the economics of the current 70 seat aircraft lend themselves to it and a 90 seat aircraft would likely improve that further. I think a turboprop operator that sought image closer to Jet Blue and/or Porter may be able to take on the likes of Alligent, Direct Air and Spirit on long, thin routes.

    • Author
      Vinay Bhaskara November 28, 2011 Reply

      Don’t discount the turboprop avoidance factor amongst US travelers; but yes, the Q400 route would be interesting for an LCC: SpiceJet is trying that in India

  4. Mike December 1, 2011 Reply

    Interesting analysis but surprised that you are speculating about a larger, not smaller turbprop:

    You are barely touching on the reason why US regionals mainly fly ERJ-145 & CRJ-200 and so few 170/190s or 700/900s: the legacy carrier pilot contracts limit the use of 50+ seat planes by the regional partners. (Scope)
    Until United & American decide on new bargaining agreements that define the future of scope, no regional in the US will order?

    you can already buy the 78 seat 400, so I think the question is – can Bombardier make a Newgen 30-50 seater? and what would the economics be?
    bear in mind the Dash-100/-200/-300 (economics) are from the 80′s and 90′s!

  5. Louis January 16, 2012 Reply

    Hi,

    Firstly, congrats for your article,
    I found it very intereting, and well documented.
    I found something that might interest you on the ATR Website (maybe you already noticed it) :

    At the end of the video (5:20) you can find on link below (second video on the bottom right corner), the CEO of Royal Air Maroc ask for a 100 seats turboprop aircraft.

    http://www.atraircraft.com/ATReview/

    I do think like you that the problem of ATR for replacing a Regionaljet can be its cruise speed. But the question is : is it interesting to be more fuel efficient and lose 10 to 15 minutes in time for your rotations (time on ground) ? I think the answer is : it depends on the fuel prices. I don’t see them decreasing in the near future for a lot of economical reasons. All aircraft manufacturers made the choice of fuel consomption instead of speed in the last 10 years, i don’t see why that would change !

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