PARIS — While the U.S. market has turned away from small, efficient turboprops in recent years, they have found homes with niche operators in North America. The lone example of North American turboprop success is Canadian airline Porter, which has an impressive fleet of 26 Bombardier Dash-8 Q400s based at its city-centre Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport home, which is currently a no-jet airport, although Porter is keen to purchase and operate Bombardier CSeries jets from there.
Yet in international markets, turboprops are a fixture of efficient and cost-effective regional flying, as Franco-Italian turboprop maker ATR — which is making a big push for customers at this year’s Paris Air Show — demonstrates.
ATR 42 and 72 aircraft are firm fixtures of island-hopping markets like the Caribbean and southeast Asia, where speed and comfort is less important on short hops than efficiency and runway performance.
Spanish airline Binter (formerly Binter Canarias) is a long-standing customer and today added a further six ATR 72-600 aircraft to its order book at Le Bourget. Hawaiian’s Ohana subsidiary operates the smaller ATR 42. Malaysia Airlines subsidiary Firefly operates 12 ATR 72-500 and the first five of a 20-strong -600 order book.
The small, efficient ATR 72 is a mainstay of Air New Zealand’s domestic fleet, with subsidiary airline Mount Cook operating a fleet of six, with another seven on order. Indeed, Air NZ has for several years operated them alongside its mainline trunk domestic jet flights between capital Wellington and the South Island’s largest city, Christchurch, a trip of just under an hour, and is increasing its fleet as it upgauges its smallest regional routes from 19-seat Beech 1900Ds.
Indeed, one of Air New Zealand’s future ATR 72-600 aircraft is on display at the Paris Air Show, with seats from ATR’s new Armonia cabin. Despite being slimline, the structure and support of these lightweight seats is impressive, and the layout Air NZ has chosen — just 68 seats in 17 rows of four — means that legroom is ample.
However, at the Paris Air Show, ATR also began offering an even higher density of its Armonia cabin, adding an extra row of passengers to the existing 74 for a knee-crunchingly impressive 78 people. There are certainly markets where this makes sense — where, in general, legroom is shorter or pricing/space expectations are set low.
Impressively, the new cabin feels spacious despite its height, just high enough for your 6’3” (190cm) author to have to stoop only slightly, and with sculpted bins that give a feeling of space. A revamped set of passenger service units (the knobs and buttons over your head) also make the cabin feel modern, even if the “do not use clickwheel iPods” sign could perhaps use a little updating. Even better: air vents for every passenger.
As ATR moves past its 1500th aircraft built and continues innovating — six-bladed propellers arrived on the ATR 72-500 in 1997, while the -600 announced in 2007 brought with it new engines, avionics and a modern flight deck — it does beg the question: with the popularity of the ATR outside the U.S., is it time for one of the U.S. airlines to buy some again?
Or is there space in the U.S. market for a niche startup along the lines of a Firefly to offer a new and interesting regional U.S. network?