Q400X studies expand as prop fever spreads

 - December 28, 2007, 7:40 AM

Bombardier continues to consider at least two potential developments of its Q Series regional turboprop series under the epithet “Q400X.” Market studies cover a 90-passenger stretched variant with longer, 1,000-nm range and a reduced-length, 56- to 60-seat version.

Regional turboprop airliners have enjoyed something of a renaissance recently as oil prices climbed. Further evidence of market interest lay with potential programs in China, where Xian Aircraft plans to launch the 70-seat MA700 this year, and in Europe, where ATR continues to ponder a 90-passenger variant of the ATR 72.

Increased demand has seen Franco-Italian ATR accelerate production from 15 aircraft three years ago, through 24 in 2006 and 44 last year, to a planned 64 this year. It plans to build 80 airplanes next year and beyond. Bombardier build rates have grown from 48 in 2006 to 65 last year.

Bombardier’s 20-year market forecast predicts 11,200 regional aircraft deliveries, including 5,300 airplanes with fewer than 100 seats–of which turboprops would account for some 1,900. Some 4,300 of the total would cater to the 60- to 99-seat sector.

Cutting DOCs
Calling fuel costs “the most volatile factor” influencing airline profitability, Bombardier predicts turboprops will “play a substantial role in the growth of the 60- to 90-seat segment” in particular.

But the company plays coy about details of Q400X performance requirements. “No decisions have been made with regards to any specific program plans,” regional aircraft commercial operations vice president Rod Williams told AIN last month. “Bombardier is continuing to evaluate the aircraft and determine its product characteristics.”

Specifically, Williams declined to discuss whether a stronger wing, planned for the 90-seater, would appear throughout the proposed Q400X line, including a smaller 56-/60-seat version, or apply to current variants. “Bombardier will evaluate various product and build concepts, including operational commonality strategies,” he said.
Adding that the current Q400 is “working well,” marketing vice president Trung Ngo said the basic design will “take all the seats available” with no basic structural restrictions. The 90-seat Q400X assumes a 31-inch seat pitch, increased baggage capacity and an “enhanced” interior.

Retaining maximum commonality with existing Q Series airplanes, the Q400X would incorporate respective 58-inch and 62-inch fore and aft fuselage plugs and stronger main landing gear with carbon brakes and larger tires. Strengthened propellers would absorb 15-percent higher power from uprated Pratt & Whitney Canada PW150A engines, which power the existing Q400.

In fact, last year regional aircraft president Steve Ridolfi characterized the Q400 as the basis for a new series. “The Q400 is a new platform, and we think it is the beginning of a new product line,” he said just before the Paris Air Show. “We’re trying to look at the technical design and feel out customers about it. Clearly there are potential opportunities to do more than a 90-seater, but where we take it is just speculation.”

For its part, ATR has most recently announced the ATR 72-600 (and smaller ATR 42-600). Studies of an aircraft to accommodate 80 to 90 passengers began two years ago, but the company expects no development to enter commercial service before about 2015. ATR is talking with Pratt & Whitney Canada and Rolls-Royce about new engines to help reduce direct operating costs.

For airlines, a 90-seat turboprop could replace a 150-seater and offer twice the frequency of service, which in turn might drive higher demand. Alternatively, reduced direct operating costs would permit “low-cost” regional airlines to offer lower fares–always assuming long-term oil-price trends do not reverse and bring regional jets back into the equation.  

Embraer Takes another Look at Turboprops

Embraer has started studying the market for a new, high-capacity turboprop, the company’s executive vice president for the airline market, Mauro Kern, told AIN last month during a conference call with company CEO Frederico Curado. He could say only that it would more likely involve a large design than something akin to the now out-of-production 29-passenger Brasilia, however, when Curado interjected with an assurance that not even concept drawings exist and that any talk about the subject remains purely hypothetical. “There is no airplane,” he said. However, Embraer’s new chief executive did identify 2015–around the time many 50-seat regional jets reach the end of their useful lives as passenger transports–as a target for an eventual turboprop’s likely introduction.

Serial production of the EMB-120 Brasilia–Embraer’s last civil turboprop product–ended in 2001, although the company can still build that airplane to order one at a time because it uses much of the same tooling to produce the ERJ 145 and Legacy. In fact, just last summer the Angolan Air Force took a single new Brasilia that it uses as a VIP transport.