While the age of propeller airliners crossing oceans and continents is so very 20th century the ‘big’ short range fuel saving turbo-prop concept lurks on the side lines of this century, as Euro regional aircraft maker ATR showed this week.
The notion of ‘big’ shorter range regional turboprops returning to the skies has been gaining moment in recent years, and ATR raised the chances of this happening sooner rather than later at a conference in Toulouse this week.
The relevance of something with more passenger capacity than a late 50s-mid 60s 88 seat Lockheed Electra (Mark II) but with only two engines for Australia is radically lowered fuel burn over shorter distances, something Qantas and Virgin Australia take very seriously.
Qantaslink has been expanding the numbers and unit sizes of its Bombardier turbo-props, Q200s with 36 seats and Q300s with 50 seats by adding and ordering substantial numbers of 74 seat Q400s for growth as well as replacement of the smaller and aging variants.
Virgin Australian, through Skywest, has countered with 68 seat ATR 72s, which are slightly slower than Q400s, but with even greater fuel savings.
These turbo-props may not be every travellers delight, with tiny and usually non-reclining seats, and an unerring capacity to find any turbulence that might be about and fly directly through rather than over it because of their reduced optimum cruise altitudes compared to jets. But they are a fact of life.
ATR has been coy about distributing updated images of its concept, but the graphic below, dated 2011, did escape into the public domain.
There remain unanswered questions about the ATR design. Will it continue to have two by two seating, like its current turbo-props? Will the fuselage be composite or alloy? Will it have lithium ion batteries? We can probably answer the last question in the negative, not just because of the Dreamliner problems, but because this isn’t an airliner that needs a huge internal power distribution system like the 787s.
Whatever the answers, there is a good chance 90 plus seating in turbo-props will find a market in this country before the end of the decade, both for resource industry FI-FO support, and shorter regional flights.
If we’re lucky, designs like the ATR proposal will also retain two by two seating, and make it as wide and comfortable as it is in the Embraer E-jets, which have already been driven out of very short haul routes for Virgin Australia by the ATR 72s.