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Whatever happened to the 90-seat turboprop?

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The appetite for launching new commercial aircraft programs is very low.

There used to be a lot of talk about Bombardier and ATR launching large turboprops that could comfortably accommodate 90 passengers. Former ATR CEO Filippo Bagnato publicly pushed the large turboprop concept at the 2013 Paris Air Show, where he told reporters he wanted to bring a 90-seat turboprop to market in the 2018/2019 timeframe. “It will be a new airplane with new engines, new systems, everything,” he enthused. In 2009, Gary Scott, then president of Bombardier Commercial Aircraft, said his company intended to move forward with a stretch version of the Q400 turboprop with first delivery likely by 2014.

But by 2014, talk of a large turboprop launch had quieted considerably. Some 13 months after listening to Bagnato push the large turboprop concept at a Le Bourget press conference, I sat with Patrick de Castelbajac in ATR’s chalet at the 2014 Farnborough Airshow shortly after he took over as the European turboprop manufacturer’s CEO. The 90-seat turboprop concept is “not mature yet,” he told me, explaining why he was putting the idea on an indefinite hold. By that point, Bombardier executives had already let it be known that their interest in the concept had waned.

So what happened? For starters, the appetite for launching new aircraft programs is very low. New versions of existing aircraft is now the game in commercial aircraft manufacturing. Bombardier has its plate full, to say the least, with a host of issues, and simply can’t do much of anything unless and until it successfully brings the CSeries to market. ATR is 50%-owned by Airbus, and both Airbus and ATR are involved in significant production ramp-ups. Airbus would rather focus on the A350’s continued service entry and the pending service entry of the A320neo than throw its weight behind an all-new turboprop at ATR.

Secondly, both Bombardier and ATR realized they could rejig the existing Q400 and ATR 72-600, respectively, to provide options to airlines looking for more than the standard turboprop. Bombardier converted the Q400’s right side baggage door into an emergency exit door, eliminated the front baggage compartment and modified the galley and wardrobe closet. Voilà—now you have an extra capacity version of the Q400 that can seat 86 passengers. Granted, it’s a tight fit—the seat pitch has to be 29 inches to fit in 86 seats.

But for carriers like Thaland’s Nok Air, which took delivery of the first extra-capacity Q400 last year, that doesn’t matter much. It’s a low-cost carrier that wants an aircraft it can efficiently fly at a high frequency level while packing in passengers—many of whom are just starting to view flying as a viable travel option and aren’t expecting a great deal of comfort. The extra cost of a new, 90-seat turboprop wouldn’t be worth it for Nok Air and its ilk.

Now Bombardier and ATR are starting to battle it out in the “combi” turboprop market. Bombardier recently announced that Okinawa-based Ryukyu Air Commuter Co. is the launch customer for the Q400 combi, which can carry 50 passengers in 32-in. pitch seats or 58 passengers in 29-in. pitch seats while also having 9,000 lb. of cargo capacity. “The Q400 combi aircraft provides unique opportunities for airlines operating routes with medium to low passenger loads, but with high cargo potential,” Bombardier Commercial Aircraft president Fred Cromer said.

ATR has just gained EASA certification for its 72-600 combi, which replaces the turboprop’s front seven passenger rows with a cargo section that can accommodate four cargo containers, doubling the load-carrying capacity of the standard 72-600. Airlines PNG of Papua New Guinea will be the launch customer and is expected to receive its first ATR 72-600 combi by the end of this year.

So don’t expect the 90-seat turboprop anytime soon.

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