ATR eyes U.S. market as it preps -600 for flight

 - June 30, 2009, 10:52 AM

As Franco-Italian turboprop maker ATR readies for the first flight of its new 600 Series this month, the company finds itself in a “comfortable position” by virtue of a backlog of 162 airplanes worth some $3 billion–“pretty much the largest [the company] has achieved in the program,” according to ATR senior vice president John Moore. Still, Moore didn’t deny the difficulty ATR has encountered selling airplanes in North America. Rather, ATR has found its greatest success of late in the Asia-Pacific region, which accounts for “just about half” of all its sales over the last several years.

Although North America accounts for a relatively solid installed base–about a quarter of all ATRs in operation fly there–most of the recent sales successes involving new turboprops in the U.S. and Canada have boosted the fortunes of the Bombardier Q400. Moore expressed confidence, however, that the trend would soon begin to shift, as U.S. airlines in particular continue to remove 50-seat jets from routes shorter than 350 nm and older-generation turboprops reach retirement age.

Moore quoted a statistic showing that U.S. airlines each month use 50-seat regional jets on about 100,000 segments that extend no farther than 350 nm.

“At current and future fuel prices, I think everybody recognizes that doesn’t make any sense economically,” he said. “It’s virtually impossible to generate a positive margin on that aircraft at those distances.”

Moore also cited a replacement market for the large population of smaller, aging turboprops in the U.S. At a standard seating capacity of 48 seats, the ATR 42 now stands alone among Western suppliers in the 50-seat market.

“The airline industry has got its difficulties in the U.S., but we certainly see between these different components of the market there is a good potential for our product and what we can offer,” said Moore.

Meanwhile, ATR hopes that efforts such as a new option for a forward, jetway-compatible passenger door in both the -500 and upcoming 600 Series models will start to pay dividends in the U.S. in particular.

Standard ATRs, both the 48-seat ATR 42 and 68-seat ATR 72, incorporate a forward cargo door and a rear passenger door. “Very early in the program we had a front passenger door and it didn’t sell…but we’re finding now that the U.S. airlines more and more are moving into jetbridge loading on regional aircraft,” said Moore.

ATR has also introduced a number of acoustic and baggage-capacity improvements to the cabin of the airplane with its new Elegance interior, noted Moore, as well an option for what he called a “true” first-class cabin, configured three-abreast.

“Some of the airlines are looking at that as a way to make regional aircraft more consistent with the mainline aircraft,” said Moore. “Personally I still question that, to take out seats which generate revenue to put in a first class [section], but the airlines that are doing it are convinced it’s a positive revenue contributor, so who am I to argue with the experts?”

Nothwithstanding the effort to add options geared toward the U.S. market, Moore wouldn’t attribute ATR’s recent problems attracting new U.S. customers to any inherent deficiency in its product. “There have not been a lot of turboprop sales in the U.S. over the last number of years, and it’s true that the few sales that have occurred have gone to Bombardier,” he conceded. “Each case had its own reasons, but it’s a market that’s open to both manufacturers...There are going to be certain applications and customers where our aircraft fits better and others where perhaps the Bombardier aircraft may fit better.” Worldwide, said Moore, ATR has attracted more than half of the market “and we don’t see any reason why the U.S. is that much different from the rest of the world in terms of how the market should be shared between the two manufacturers.”

Scheduled for certification in the second half of 2010, the 600 Series features an
all-new glass cockpit from Thales and upgrades to its Pratt & Whitney Canada PW127s designed to supply 5 percent more power and better hot-and-high performance. The company plans 150 hours of flight testing in one of the ATR 72 test aircraft it has used in previous campaigns, fitted with the Thales avionics and the more powerful PW127M turboprops, and another 70 hours in an ATR 42. The company expects to use much of the data gleaned from the tests on the ATR 72 for both aircraft.

ATR has already started installing in current-production -500 Series airplanes the new PW127Ms, which gained certification in March last year. Thanks to an increased payload, fuel burn per passenger will improve in the -600, bringing CO2 emissions per passenger relatively close to those of a car, according to ATR.

In the cockpit, five 6- by 8-inch LCDs and an integrated modular avionics architecture distinguish the 600 Series from its predecessor perhaps more than any other feature, said Moore. The autopilot offers optional Category 3A approach capability, and the standard fit includes vertical navigation. The Thales system integrates some hardware from other providers, such as terrain awareness warning and traffic alert collision avoidance systems made by ACSS.

As for external noise, some “fine tuning” will bring levels within Stage 4 standards, according to ATR. Cabin noise will decrease by 2 dBA, to 77 dBA. Further refinements such as improved acoustic insulation will reduce vibrations.

Designers expect LED interior lighting to reduce electric power consumption. Moreover, they emit less heat, which translates into more efficiency. They also allow passengers to adjust cabin lighting more precisely.

Meanwhile, ATR remains in the early stages of evaluating the prospects for a new turboprop that could carry as many as 90 passengers. “We do have a number of existing customers who say they have a need for a larger capacity aircraft than the 72,” said Moore. “So we’re in the initial stages, I think, of doing a market evaluation and talking to the airlines about what they expect and what they need. At the same time we’re having discussions with some of the major suppliers, particularly on the engine side, to see what they can offer.”

Moore did confirm that the project would not involve a derivative of the existing ATR 42/72, but rather a completely new platform. “So it’s difficult to predict the overall timetable of when the major suppliers would be able to bring something like that to the market,” he said, while adding that the engine makers have said they could ready a new powerplant by the middle of the next decade.