LONDON — European turboprop manufacturer Avions de Transport Regional (ATR) had a fairly quiet
Farnborough Airshow with no orders announced. But with around three years’ order backlog already on its books, that disappointment will not be too great.

Additionally, in a pre-show briefing, ATR forecast that the world’s turboprop fleet (which it defines as those aircraft between 20 to 80 seats) will rise from 2,100 aircraft today to 3,900 in 20 years’ time. Of that figure, around 1000 will be replacements for existing aircraft while 1,800 will constitute the actual increase. Plenty of potential orders there.

In recent years, ATR has outsold its main competitor, Bombardier’s Dash 8 Q400, in most markets with the major exception of North America. Essentially, the ATR is slower but more economical, while the Q400 flies faster and further but burns more gas.

This means that the Q400 continues to rack up orders in North America and Africa, where sectors are long by regional standards, but the ATR 42 and 72 (roughly 50-seat and 76-seat respectively) do better in places such as Europe, where routes are shorter.

ATR’s sales have also outpaced considerably those of Bombardier offering, particularly in the fast-growing Asia-Pacific marketplace, with Indonesia’s Lion Air buying 100 and MAS Wings of Malaysia and Cebu Pacific of the Philippines also signing up for useful numbers.

ATR is keen to expand further and its demonstrator ATR 72-600 undertook a tour of the US and Canada in May, which included a pitch of the aircraft to the Regional Airline Association at its annual convention in Charlotte; it is also opening sales offices in Beijing and Tokyo, to try to tap into the potentially lucrative Chinese and Japanese market.

However, all western turboprops face the problem in China of competing against the domestically-built MA60 and forthcoming MA700, which Chinese airlines will be ‘encouraged’ to buy.

Overall, the picture should be a bright one for Franco-Italian ATR, which hopes to deliver around 90 aircraft this year – a new production record.

However, there are reportedly tensions between the French and Italian shareholders. The issue of contention is whether ATR should build an aircraft in the 90 to 100-seat category. This has been discussed in the company for several years. The Italian shareholders (Leonardo) are enthusiastic, the French (Airbus) are not.

The company’s former CEO, the Italian Filippo Bagnato, was a keen proponent of the larger aircraft. His successor, the French Patrick de Castelbajac, less so. Airbus has been wary of putting up the funds required for a new design, seeing no reason to do so when the existing aircraft have been selling well in recent years.

A few years ago, the spiralling cost of fuel made the gas-sipping turboprops particularly attractive to many airlines and sales have continued at a healthy level despite the recent sharp dip in oil prices.

Leonardo sees buying out Airbus’s 50% stake in ATR as the way to ensure that a larger turboprop design gets the go-ahead. At Leonardo’s annual shareholders’ meeting in late April, CEO Mauro Moretti said that his company was discussing with Airbus the possibility of taking full control of the turboprop manufacturer, whose main assembly plant is at Toulouse, southwest France.

“Our partners do not want to develop, so either we convince them to invest or we convince them to strike a deal that will give us control” Reuters reported Moretti as telling his shareholders.

Watch this space.