ATR executives remained upbeat on the company’s long-term future and the resilience of the market segment it serves despite a dismal showing in 2020, when it delivered just 10 aircraft and ended the year with net orders for three airplanes after one customer canceled a three-unit deal. The figures look particularly paltry in comparison to 2019, when the company reported 68 deliveries and net orders for 48 airplanes.
“It has been a very difficult year,” chief executive Stefano Bortoli conceded during an online media briefing on Wednesday. “[But] I believe ATR has reached its bottom. For 2021 we are looking at doubling our deliveries to 20 and improving our financial performance.” It will take a “few years” to get back to 2019 levels, he added, without offering a more concrete timeframe.
Despite the unprecedented market conditions, the Franco-Italian turboprop manufacturer saw nine new operators using ATR aircraft and 84 new routes opened. ATR operators also launched services in three new countries, bringing its customer base to more than 200 operators in 100 countries.
In fact, ATR commercial vice president Fabrice Vautier said ATR operators withstood the pandemic comparatively well. Only 30 percent of the ATR fleet is grounded—some 820 ATR aircraft still fly—and capacity measured in available seat kilometers decreased only 38 percent in 2020 versus 2019. That compares with a 45 percent year-on-year drop for single-aisle jets and a 72 percent fall for widebodies, he said.
“Moreover, several operators such as Finnair, Azul, and Bangkok Airways chose to deploy ATRs on routes where they operated bigger modules before Covid,” noted Vautier, who further said he expects domestic and regional traffic to recover first. That spells good news for ATR operators, which fly domestic routes an average of 85 percent of the time.
ATR quickly reacted to the downturn, Bortoli noted. It “rightsized” the company while developing solutions to support its customers, including offering rapid passenger to freighter conversions, aircraft storage and maintenance solutions, and tutorials to sanitize aircraft.
Meanwhile, the Toulouse-based OEM continued its strategy of making incremental changes to ATR's existing family of aircraft—the ATR 42 and ATR 72. The long-touted project of developing a larger 90-seat ATR now seems shelved and the appetite to venture into hydrogen-fuel technology non-existent.
“Our roadmap is about existing family members and improving these aircraft,” Bortoli stressed, deflecting questions whether ATR is somehow involved in Airbus’s project to develop a zero-emission, hydrogen-powered commercial aircraft that could enter service by 2035. One of the three ZEROe concepts Airbus is exploring centers on a turboprop design that could seat up to 100 passengers and travel more than 1,000 nm. “These questions should be directed to Airbus,” he replied. Airbus owns 50 percent of ATR.
The ATR head and former Leonardo executive also declined to admit to any concerns about possible new turboprop competitors. Embraer last year indicated it might develop a new-generation 70- to 100-seat turboprop and Turkish Technik has begun studies into a clean-sheet 70- to 90-seat machine. “We welcome competition,” said Bortoli. "I do not want to comment on other companies’ statements.”
Asked by AIN whether future short-haul electric aircraft might form a threat to ATR, Bortoli noted that the OEM participates in a segment where commercial airlines’ operations must turn a profit. “So far, the modules for electric aircraft that have been tested and considered for a short-haul electrical prototype are too small and economically unaffordable for airlines [in our 48 to 78-seat segment],” he said. “The discussions that we have had with airlines show the [ATR 42] as the entry-level for [profitable] operations.”
However, projects for short-haul electric aircraft do target ATR’s market. Electric Aviation Group (EAG) in the UK has designed a 70-seat hybrid-electric regional aircraft (HERA) it claims could enter commercial service in 2028. The company recently secured lessor Falko Regional Aircraft as an investor. EAG believes a potential market of around 3,000 aircraft exists for its HERA, mainly through the replacement of 1,800 ATR 72s and 1,200 De Havilland Canada Dash 8-400s.