Despite the difficulty ATR has encountered in penetrating the U.S. turboprop market, company CEO Filippo Bagnato continues to express optimism that the Franco-Italian partnership will experience a resurgence in what perhaps represents its final frontier of a sort. Now controlling some 60 percent of the market for 50- to 90-seat airplanes based on unit sales backlogs, the last Western maker of 50-seat-category turboprops sees itself as a potential lifeline for small U.S. cities and communities that can no longer support the services of regional jets of any size.
“More than 500 fifty-seat jets have been or will be grounded in the U.S. in the next few years, underlining the fact that they are becoming more and more inefficient for airlines operating at the regional level,” said Bagnato. “The operational reality has changed, with increasing fuel prices and new scope clauses, and 50-seat regional jets [have] become [an] unviable solution…Some 20 percent of 50-seat regional jets have been withdrawn from 2005, and we consider this is just a beginning. The consequences for the U.S. passengers are a poorer network and service.”
Apart from larger prop-driven airplanes such as Fokker 50s, Saab 2000s and de Havilland Dash 8-300s, few of which still operate in the U.S., ATR counts more than 1,000 thirty-seat turboprops in service that will need replacing in the next few years. So although it has sold relatively few ATR 42-600s compared with the 68-seat ATR 72-600, ATR believes the need for replacement airplanes in the U.S. will drive demand for its 48-seat model and justify its production into the foreseeable future. Out of a projected 20-year market for 3,300 turboprops, 50-seaters will account for 10 percent, says ATR, meaning it expects enough demand to sell at least 15 ATR 42-600s a year.
“From September 2005 to September 2012, some 200 city pairs under 300 nautical miles have stopped being served; this is a decrease of some 26 percent of service,” said Bagnato. “More than 50 percent of these 200 city pairs were operated with 30- to 50-seat aircraft, and we understand there is a huge potential there for the ATR 42.”
Now building 80 airplanes a year, ATR by far produces more ATR 72s than it does ATR 42s, and the company expects 70-seaters to account for half of the entire turboprop market over the next 20 years. Ninety-seat turboprops, to which ATR and Bombardier both remain officially uncommitted, will account for the remaining 40 percent, it reckons.
Of course, if a 90-seat turboprop were available today, U.S. regional airlines could not operate them due to the scope clauses written into the pilot contracts of their major airline counterparts. Bagnato said he expects further loosening of scope clause restrictions will eventually change that scenario for both manufacturers, but for now, one of his biggest challenges centers on placing ATR 72s in North America.
“ATR aircraft [are] the perfect aircraft for U.S. regional routes, some of which might be saved from extinction,” insisted Bagnato.
Until now, North American airlines have opted for the larger and faster Bombardier Q400, but Bagnato sounds convinced that more campaigns will tip in ATR’s favor as North American airlines come to appreciate the value of the improvements in the 600 Series–namely, a forward passenger door capable of accommodating jet bridges, a new interior, more powerful Pratt & Whitney PW127M engines and a new Thales avionics suite.
“U.S. regional airlines have not experienced yet the newest generation ATR -600s, but we are seeing all over the world the outstanding success and popularity of these aircraft,” said Bagnato. “We are convinced that once U.S. carriers have the chance to experience it, they will adopt it.”