ATR has Australia’s ageing regional fleet in its sights as it seeks new opportunities in this part of the world following the reduction of Virgin Australia’s turboprop operations.
The Toulouse-based manufacturer, which is jointly owned by Airbus and Leonardo, offers the ATR 42-600 (46-50 seats) and the ATR 72-600 (68-78 seats). There are also cargo and combi variants.
As the only company with an in-production 50-seat turboprop, ATR appears well placed to offer operators of 34-seat Saab 340s or 50-seat Dash 8-Q300 a viable alternative in the form of the 42-600 when those older aircraft reach the end of their operating lives.
“When you have a 36 seater or a 48-seater, the ATR 42 is a good replacement,” ATR managing director Jean-Pierre Clercin told Australian Aviation in an interview at the Singapore Airshow on February 8.
“And if you want to upgauge it is also a good option.”
While the capacity jump from 34-seat Saab 340s to the 42-600 might a bit too much for some markets to absorb, Clercin noted the lower operating costs of the newer ATR compared to some of these two-decade old airframes.
“If your cost per trip becomes higher actually because of maintenance costs and you have cancellations because of reliability issues, yes, at the end of the day although you might have too many seats it might be cheaper to operate a slightly bigger aircraft,” he explained.
“With more seats you have more opportunity also for upswings, so stimulating the market is an option as well.
“All the turboprops actually are potential targets. You look at the Saab, the Dash 8 100, 200, 300, 400, Metros even.”
Clercin was previously ATR’s sales manager with responsibility for Australia and other countries in Oceania before recently moving to his current role in ATR’s support team.
New ATR sales manager for Australia Ryan Belguidoum, who has been in the role for two months, said the region was an important market.
“The fleet is ageing in Australia. The whole regional fleet is more than 23 years old, we’ve got a lot of opportunities there,” Belguidoum said.
“On the 50-seater we are the only one in the market.”
Regional Express (Rex) is the world’s largest operator of Saab 340s, with 56 aircraft in the fleet according to its website. In 2014, Rex announced it had purchased 18 Saab 340B+ aircraft which it been operating under a lease. At the time it said the airframes still had a remaining useful life of at least 20 years.
Meanwhile, Qantas has 16 Dash 8-Q300s and three 36-seat Dash 8-Q200s that are flown by subsidiary Eastern Australia Airlines both under the QantasLink banner in Australia and for Jetstar in New Zealand.
And QantasLink’s Sunstate Airlines operates 33 Bombardier Q400s that are configured with 74 seats.
Across the Tasman, Air New Zealand is the world’s third largest operator of ATR with 17 72-600s and nine 72-500s, which have 68 seats in an all-economy layout. The aircraft are flown by the Air New Zealand subsidiary Mount Cook Airline.
Virgin Australia began flying ATRs in 2011 and grew the fleet to 14 aircraft, comprising six 72-500s and eight 72-600.
In all, six 72-500s have been withdrawn and placed in storage at Nelson in New Zealand, with a further two 72-600s also expected to exit the fleet.
While the parking of some Virgin Australia ATRs was disappointing, Clercin said the move was a reflection on the changing market conditions in Queensland, as well as the airline’s inability to grow its turboprop operations out of the busy Sydney Airport rather than the aircraft itself.
“One of the big challenges that they had actually is the fact they couldn’t develop the market in Sydney as much as they wanted because of the slots,” Clercin said. “That, combined with Queensland and the situation in the FIFO market, was a tough moment.”
“We have been doing our best to see how we can accomodate the situation and try to promote some ideas in terms of network and these kinds of things.
“I think they have a great business in Australia. I am sure when the market bounces back there will be opportunities to reopen some routes.”
Another significant ATR operator in the region is PNG Air, which has seven 72-600s in operation and five more due to be delivered by 2022.
ATR is also working on short takeoff and landing (STOL) that could also enhance the aircraft’s appeal for regional operators.
First announced in June 2017, the new variant, dubbed 42-600S, could takeoff with a full passenger load from runways as short as 800-850 metres. Currently ATR quotes a 1,025m takeoff distance for an 42-600 with a max passenger load at ISA and sea level.
That would open up the 42-600 to a lot of smaller regional airfields in Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and the islands of the South Pacific.
“When you look at the infrastructure, the cost of having a runway extension in some the areas is just prohibitive,” Clercin said.
“Having a tool to allow you to operate to those runways without changing it, it is a great asset.”
The STOL variant of the 42-600 could be significant for Lord Howe Island Airport, which is located about 425nm east of Sydney in the Pacific Ocean. The airport has a single runway in an east-west orientation that is 866m in length, which limits the types of aircraft that can operate there.
Currently, QantasLink schedules up to 19 flights a week to Lord Howe Island from Sydney, as well as some seasonal services from Port Macquarie, with 36-seat Dash 8 Q200 turboprops, the smallest aircraft type in the Qantas fleet.
While an 42-600 was able to land and takeoff from Lord Howe Island Airport currently, Clercin said the aircraft was not able to do with 50 passengers on board, with the number closer to 36.
However, Clercin said the 42-600S would be able to operate to Lord Howe Island Airport with a full load.
The STOL variant was first announced in June 2017 and was expected to be formally launched later in 2018.
“We have defined all the main features of the development,” Clercin said.
“We are discussing with few operators to finalise the configuration. We hope to see something in the coming months.”
In December, the NSW government said it was committing $450,000 to investigate extending the runway at Lord Howe Island.
This Youtube clip from wiiwheel64 provides a good perspective on the geographical challenges of operating from Lord Howe Island, plus the Q200’s excellent field performance!