Turboprop vs jet: Likely productivity drives the choice, says Lufthansa

 - June 1, 2007, 11:55 AM

Current and future airplane use, fleet complexity and increased competition all will influence decisions about new aircraft by short-haul airlines, according to Jurgen Hild, head of regional partner management at German flag carrier Lufthansa. Addressing senior executives on future equipment selection at the April 18 to 19 European Regions Airline Association (ERA) conference in Lisbon, Portugal, Hild said that simpler fleet arrangements reduce costs. Continuing growth trends predicted in European regional traffic will provide opportunities for new point-to-point services, but competition from low-cost carriers will be “fierce,” he warned.

On mainline routes serving major German hubs such as Frankfurt and Munich, existing rates of growth translate into a requirement for larger aircraft. At the same time, the planned introduction of new runways at those airports and in
the German capital city Berlin in the early years of the next decade will revive demand for smaller aircraft.

Such developments underscore the questions facing regional airlines choosing between turboprop and turbofan power: would jets compete directly against turboprops on the same route, provide greater productivity because of higher average speeds or have more sex appeal to passengers? Ultimately, the choice of equipment depends on productivity assumptions, concluded Hild.

Perception Matters
Passenger surveys can contribute to airline fleet analyses; Lufthansa customers rate cleanliness, seat comfort and on-board service nearly equally on jet and turboprop aircraft. The airline’s regional operation flies 110 jets (40 Bombardier CRJ200s, 20 CRJ700s, 12 CRJ900s, four BAe 146-200s, 16 BAe 146-300s and 18 BAe Avro RJ85s) and 36 turboprops (five Bombardier Q300s, six Q400s, 11 ATR 42-500s and 14 ATR 72-500s).

Hild emphasized that passengers recognize differences between individual aircraft types and show particular awareness of the introduction of new aircraft or factors such as greater seat pitch and therefore legroom. “Route length also plays a role,” he said. When Lufthansa introduced larger airplanes in the form of CRJ900s in August last year, customers submitted an “extraordinary positive rating” of the new aircraft, cabin interior and seats.

Considering reliability “that might surprise you,” Hild reported that turboprop airliners are “not really inferior” in comparative schedule performance. “Turboprops at Lufthansa Regional partners operated in 2006 with considerably lower technical delay rate and technical cancellation rate than jets,” he said.

Speed Sells
Hild acknowledged the block time disparity between jets and turboprops, even when considering faster aircraft such as the Q400. Competing against a jet represents a challenge that an ATR cannot always overcome with frequency, according to Hild. Jets save almost half an hour (or more than a quarter of flying time) on Dusseldorf-Dresden services: “[Taking] 25 minutes longer travel time [over] 304 nautical miles is not really offset by [offering] more frequencies,” he said.

Use of faster Q Series turboprops lowers the differential, with the jet advantage ranging from 11 minutes over 200 nm to 15 minutes over 400 nm. Still, a CRJ700 can operate five full round trips per day on Dusseldorf-Dresden services, while the Q400 can manage only nine of the 10 sectors. But the turboprop’s lower fuel burn and maintenance cost offset the disadvantage to some extent. “Speed has a price,” Hild reminded regional airline officials.