LONDON — Air Lease Corporation (ALC) signed an order for seven ATR 72-600 turboprops on Tuesday that was previously marked on the books as undisclosed. The order extends ALC’s current backlog with the French plane maker to 28 aircraft, keeping a trickle of top up orders going each year since 2010.
ALC chairman and CEO Steven Udvar-Házy said at the briefing that not all of the aircraft have been placed yet, though he said placement announcements would be soon forthcoming.
Whether those placements could include carriers in North America, a region in which ATR has struggled mightily to maintain market share, was unclear. Mr. Udvar-Házy said he saw opportunities for the aircraft to gain a foothold, particularly on shorter flights in the north and south-eastern regions, where ATR’s products perform well. He declined to comment on whether or not ALC was in talks with any such carriers, citing his position on the board of Skywest.
ATR executives acknowledge that North America, which once hosted a fairly large fleet, has turned into a weak spot. “Despite our efforts it’s a market that’s taken some time to come back for us,” admits ATR’s global head of sales John Moore with a heavy tone . ATR executives, Mr. Moore included, cite the 1980s “jet-mania” craze in the US, in which carriers ditched turboprops for regional jets (RJs), as a major factor. Pilot scope clauses, which have set capacity limits (generally 50 or lower) on regional jets in order to protect mainline passenger airline pilot jobs, have also been problematic, thanks to ATR’s fifty-plus-seat airplanes.
Yet those same Rjs that pushed ATR out of North America could provide the company with an opportunity to sneak back in. While the jet-craze had its fun, it’s a decision that carriers “are now paying the price” for, says Guillaume Gasparri, ATR’s Americas sales head. “They know that it’s nonsense to operate a jet of fifty seats on a 200-250 miles route.” So far, though the answer has been to ditch those aging and inefficient RJs for bigger, more efficient jets such as Embraer’s E-Jets or Bombardier’s CRJs. Thus Mr. Moore says it could take some time before carriers turn away from jets and back toward turboprops: “the first priority for [US carriers] is to get into the larger jets, and then to the extent that they can still have room within their scope clauses I think that they will also add turboprops to optimize and [place the planes] on the shorter routes and shorter segments.”
Mr. Moore also sees opportunities to position ATR products to take advantage of upgauging on both ends of his product line. On the lower end, Moore says the 50-seat ATR 42 provides an opportunity for carriers to replace the US’s aging fleet of 25-40 seat Saab 340s, CRJ100/200, and Bombardier Dash 8-200/300s. “The -42 is the only 50-seat aircraft in production, and it’s a pretty economical aircraft,” says Moore. “We’re not going to be able to replace all of them […] but certainly some portion of those markets I think are opportunities.”
Perhaps most intriguing is the idea of expanding the ATR product line beyond 90 seats, a possibility that has been rumored for some time but has yet to come to fruition. Such an airplane wcould give ATR a virtual lock on high capacity turboprops. It’s nearest competitor, Bombardier, has not decided to swing for an enlarged Q400 so far, though buzz abounds that a higher capacity Q400X-type project could be in the works. Even if Bombardier does go ahead with such a project, ATR’s products aren’t exactly in direct competition, with the Q400 operating longer routes than the ATR 42/72.
Mr. Udvar-Házy made it clear during the press conference that he saw an opportunity for ATR to exploit in a 90+ seat airplane: “Look at the price of oil and the efficiency of turboprops, there’s certainly a niche in the market that needs to be developed.” And Mr. Moore agrees, stating in an interview that “we believe there’s a market for the aircraft.” He adds that such a plane could be especially popular in North America, saying that “there’s a number of routes where I’m sure a larger capacity aircraft could be of interest to them.”
The matter is currently before the company’s shareholders, says Moore, which is where the rubber fails to meet the road. Airbus owns a 50% stake in ATR, and has not been shy in stating it does not wish to devote resources to its regional affiliate to chase down a project it doesn’t believe has true market potential. It also doesn’t help that ATR’s last clean sheet airplane came nearly thirty years ago. Consequently the firm would need to draw on the engineering resources of its own shareholder. And its fair to say those engineers are currently rather occupied with Airbus’ A350 and A320/330neo projects.
Mr. Moore says the company’s new CEO, Patrick de Castelbajac, “feels that we need to stabilize and secure our current business so we can convince [our shareholders] that we can develop a new program.” Mr. Moore said there was no timeframe on when a decision would be made. Mr. de Castelbajac, it should be noted, is a former Airbus executive.
Still, ATR has enjoyed a healthy measure of success. Total frames ordered exceed 1,500, and Mr. Udvar-Házy noted that the airplanes he ordered on Tuesday would be build frames 1,100 and beyond. “I don’t think people understand or realize that ATR has been by far the most successful turboprop commercial airplane ever built. It is the only one that has sold and delivered more than 1000 units. We think the ATR 42/72 family has a long way to go,” said Udvar-Házy.