A recent slew of new announcements from BAE Systems Regional Aircraft has reminded the industry that the BAE146/ Avro RJ jetliner family has not gone away. New lease packages to regional airlines, the possibility of a new production line and some innovative conversion packages all suggest that the four-engine jets still have some life left in them.
The UK firm has signed contracts with SN Brussels Airlines for 23 sales and leasebacks and Lufthansa Regional for a further 11. It announced additional leases to customers in Romania, Bulgaria and Albania last month.
“There is a real resurgence of market interest in this aircraft,” said BAE Systems sales and marketing vice president Steve Doughty. “Some large airlines are taking the view that new regional jets offer only marginal improvements over modern used models and yet entail significant risk in terms of financial exposure and commitment period. This comes at a time of considerable market uncertainty, especially in the regional sector, which is experiencing ferocious competition from the low-cost carriers.”
A recently announced service life extension program promises “at least” another 20 years of continued service from the 146, while another significant modification offers upgrades to older analogue flight decks with LCD flat-panel displays. “There is plenty of churn in our fleet,” Doughty told Aviation International News. “Some are over 20 years old but others are no more than three–so we can offer customers a flexible range of packages.”
Freighter Conversion Considered
BAE also sees a resurgence in the regional freight market–so much so that the company is considering re-establishing a conversion program for the BAE146QT (quiet trader). It plans a firm decision on the move by the end of 2005, and to place the first aircraft into the program in early 2006.
“The 146 already complies with Stage 4 noise limits, a feature that bodes well for its future as a freighter,” explained Doughty. “The conversion program would be suitable for older airframes where residual values support its economics. We anticipate good demand for a 10- to 12- [metric] tonne freighter over the coming years.”
The company certainly didn’t predict the emergence of one particular niche, according to BAE director Mark Taylor. A leased 200 variant, ex-Air Wisconsin, has made its way to Nevada, where Minden Air is converting it for use as an aerial firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service as a replacement for elderly ex-military types.
It will be able to drop 3,000 U.S. gallons of retardant onto wildfires, a growing risk in the Pacific Northwest and other regions that experience increasingly hot, dry summers. “Work is expected to be complete later this year, with a view to approvals being issued in time for the 2006 firefighting season,” said Taylor. “We are currently looking at similar opportunities in South America and Australia.”