Turboprops still surging as fuel prices set records

 - November 30, 2007, 5:47 AM

The high-flying turboprop market shows no sign of losing altitude, as builders on both sides of the Atlantic continue to collect a steady flow of sizable orders from around the globe. Some of the most striking signs of strength have come from the part of the world encompassing Australia, Oceania and Southeast Asia, where more recently Qantas and Malaysian Airlines each demonstrated a growing affinity for prop-driven equipment with plans to place major orders for 12 Bombardier Q400s and 20 ATR 72s, respectively.

Meanwhile, long-established turboprop markets such as Europe show no sign of losing their buoyancy, particularly with the arrival of $90- and $100-per-barrel oil. In fact, another of Bombardier’s latest orders, for 10 Q400s, came from an anonymous European airline that doesn’t now operate the type. The order gave Bombardier its 11th Q400 customer on the continent, helping to dull some of the sting of SAS’s decision to ground its entire fleet of 27 airplanes. (See 'EASA Q400 findings imply isolated fault')

The Qantas deal, which represents an investment of some $400 million for the Australian flag carrier, would include options and “purchase rights” for another 24 Q400s, the first of which wholly owned subsidiary QantasLink would place into service next June. Qantas CEO Geoff Dixon said plans call for Q400s to replace all of QantasLink’s 36-seat de Havilland Dash 8-100s by early 2010. Now flying seven Q400s in a 72-seat configuration primarily within Queensland and the Australian Capital Territory, QantasLink expects its capacity to grow at a rate of 19 percent a year from July next year to June 2010. Its entire fleet of 49 airplanes flies some 2,000 trips a week to 50 destinations.

QantasLink’s development might well serve as a model for Malaysian Airlines’ new Firefly regional unit, whose plans to place a firm order for 10 ATR 72-500s and options on another 10 appeared all but settled after the Malaysian government in October issued the airline approval to fly from the three additional hubs it wants to develop.

Launched in April with a pair of Fokker 50 turboprops, the Penang-based airline now maintains a network of nine cities in Malaysia and the surrounding region. While new service on October 29 to Subang added to the workload of its modest fleet of Fokker 50s, it also established Firefly’s presence in one of the three cities it plans to develop into a new hub. All told, Firefly has identified 61 cities throughout Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines it wants to serve by 2011.

Plans call for a network of six domestic and nine international routes from Panang, 12 domestic and 13 international routes from Subang and seven domestic and 14 international routes out of Senai International Airport in Johor Bahru.

Firefly also plans to serve a network of six domestic and five international routes in partnership with its newly formed sister airline, MASWings, out of another planned hub, in Kota Kinabalu on Malaysian Borneo. During last month’s Dubai Airshow, MASWings signed an MOU that reserved firm purchase rights on 10 ATR 72-500s and options on another five. Plans call for deliveries to occur in 2009 and 2010. MASWings flew its inaugural service, with a Fokker 50 from the coastal town of Miru to Mulu, Sarawak, on October 1. It now flies a fleet of four Fokker 50s and four de Havilland Twin Otters.

Other recent inroads made by ATR into Southeast Asia will see it delivering 10 ATR 72s to Indonesia’s Batavia Air through 2010 under the terms of a firm order placed in late August. The contract–the first for new ATRs by an Indonesian airline–included options on another 10 airplanes. Only two weeks after landing the Batavia contract, ATR celebrated another regional breakthrough, when Queensland’s MacAir introduced into service Australia’s first ATR 42-500. The MacAir ATR 42-500–the largest aircraft in the carrier’s fleet–supports several “fly in-fly out” services to remote mining communities in the Queensland outback.

ATR has established a sales office in Sydney, Australia, and a parts center in Auckland, New Zealand, to support its growing presence in the region. In September Air New Zealand subsidiary Mount Cook Airline, which operates 11 ATR 72-500s, established an ATR pilot training simulator in Christchurch.

For its part, Bombardier operates a parts warehouse and service center in Sydney, from which it supports a customer base flying 62 Dash 8 and Q Series turboprops in Australia alone. As of October 10 another 18 Q300s flew with Air New Zealand, which awaited delivery of a further five of the 50-seat turboprops.