Turboprops: Cost concerns start to make propellers fashionable again

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The new King Air that Hawker Beechcraft will display in Geneva this week is a true business aircraft of the age.

A descendant of a venerable range that first flew in 1963, the King Air 350i turboprop twin has the plush, sophisticated interior of a business jet in the body of a workhorse.

That meshes neatly with the current mood of austerity. Not only is cost even more critical than in normal times, but the image of corporate aircraft use is still clouded by the public relations gaffe by US auto industry executives early in the financial crisis, when they used private jets to fly to Washington to plead for government funds.

Turboprops, which use turbine engines to drive a propeller rather than pushing out pure thrust, are more economical at lower altitudes than jets, and for short journeys the advantages add up.

In good times, owners and operators have preferred the speed – and image – of jets.

The business turboprop fleet in North America grew 12 per cent to 8,478 this year compared with five years ago, according to figures from the Ascend aerospace consultancy. But at the same time, in the same region, the business jet fleet grew 18 per cent to 11,631.

In Europe, the contrast is more marked. A 29 per cent increase in the business turboprop fleet to 1,493 compares with 83 per cent growth in business jets to 2,587. And across the rest of the world the equivalent rises are 26 per cent to 3,926 in turboprops, 72 per cent to 3,036 in jets.

But behind those long-term shifts are some other trends.

“Turboprops have been a very stable market niche for people who don’t need speed or range – those for whom cost is the bottom line,” says an aviation analyst. “You can’t beat the operating value turboprops bring.”

Cessna, which sells more business jets than any other aircraft maker, this year celebrates the 25th year in production of its only remaining turboprop aircraft, the Caravan. The 2,000th off the line is scheduled to go in August to a buyer in Africa – an appropriate destination for the rugged, short-takeoff, go-anywhere aircraft.

While sales of Cessna jets have plunged from 340 in 2008 to 289 last year and an expected 225 this year, John Doman, vice-president of propeller sales, says the single-engine turboprop is bucking the trend.

“We had one of the best years last year with 95 or 96 Caravans delivered,” he says. “But there are well over 100 in production for this year. That will be the highest figure ever.”

The 208B Grand Caravan, the stretched version that represents 90 per cent of the models sold, sells for $1.9m typically equipped. A package that includes Citation jet levels of interior luxury, with big seats and an entertainment package, puts the price up to $2.2m.

That, with operating costs lower than for a jet, has been enough to make some flight departments ignore an unpressurised cabin and a maximum operating speed of 170-175 kts.

“We do have a market segment of corporate operators or private individuals who, because of market conditions, have reduced their fleet and added a Caravan for short routes,” says Mr Doman.

Piaggio Aero Industries sells its twin-turboprop aircraft P180 Avanti II into a very different market, but it also says it is benefiting from flight departments looking to trim costs.

“Companies are choosing to add a P180 to their fleet for specific roles,” says Alberto Galassi, chief executive of the Italy-based company. “They might have a Gulfstream for international routes and add a P180 for shorter trips.”

They are opting for less noise, and less cost, he says. “And no one will complain about a turboprop,” he adds. “Not shareholders, nor the public.”

The $7.3m aircraft shares many performance figures with jets – a Mach 0.7 cruise speed, 1,500 nautical mile range and a ceiling of 41,000 ft, allowing it to fly above most weather and airline traffic. Yet, Mr Galassi says, it consumes 30-35 per cent less fuel than a similarly-sized jet.

The sleek turboprop is unique among contemporary business aircraft in having three lifting surfaces, including a canard wing at the front, and turbine engines mounted on the main wing driving pusher propellers. “You don’t see the props in the cabin, you don’t hear the props in the cabin,” says Mr Galassi.

Production is holding up better than at many jet makers. This year’s expected 25 aircraft is only five or six down on 2009.

The company’s diverse ownership gives access to wider markets, too. Piaggio Aero is a third owned by India’s Tata Group, a third by the Abu Dhabi government’s Mubadala Development, and the rest by Ferrari and other Italian families. Three P180s are flying in India and one in Bangladesh, says Mr Galassi, while the United Arab Emirates Air Force has bought two.

Hawker Beechcraft has also been buoyed by new buyers for its turboprops. “Special-mission aircraft have been a large percentage of sales,” says Sean McGeough, president of the Europe, Middle East and Africa region for Hawker.

The US Project Liberty reconnaissance and surveillance aircraft, which are based on King Airs, have been an unexpected success for Hawker. “We’ve been lucky having the turboprop range to buoy us through the recession,” says Mr McGeough.

He also reports a number of flight departments adding turboprop aircraft to take advantage of cheaper flying. And he cites a statistic that indicates that turboprops are far from ceding the air to jets: for the past four years, the King Air 200 turboprop has been Europe’s most widely used business aircraft.

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