Blade runners return to the war in the sky

In a hangar in France, a plane manufacturer is going back to the future, writes Mark Leftly in Toulouse. Amid high fuel costs, a design that restores propellers to prominence could catch on

The Skagul Viking is nearly ready for its maiden flight.

Two men in a crane apply the final paintwork to the tail stabiliser and all that’s obviously missing is an emergency exit door, unusually located towards the front of the aircraft.

Sitting in the same hangar on the edge of Toulouse in southwest France, where Concorde was assembled, the Skagul Viking will soon be on its way to its new owner, Sweden’s SAS airline. Passengers will relax in lightweight leather seats by Giorgetto Giugiaro, the Italian designer behind the sleek look of  Ferrari and Alfa Romeo cars, with vital inches of legroom freed up by placing the magazine rack behind the serving tray rather than in front of the knees.

Decoration aside, identical aircraft for the likes of Brazil’s Azul and Indonesia’s Wings Air are nearby, also receiving the finishing touches of a 10-week assembly process.

But these shiny, state-of-the-art aeroplanes possess  two features that date them in the eyes of most Brits: propellers at the front of the engines. Even the chief executive of the manufacturer, ATR, admits there is a view in many parts of Europe that what are known as “turboprops” are “old, noisy, smelly, not very reliable”.

Patrick de Castelbajac, a 43-year-old half-French, half-Irishman who studied at Kent University, knows he faces a hard sell when he attends his first Farnborough International Airshow as chief executive next week. Yet the UK is a “top 10 target market” for an aircraft that is on the verge of a European renaissance – good news for ATR’s British suppliers and notably the FTSE 100 engineer Meggitt, which makes the brakes.

The premier event on this year’s aviation calendar will, as ever, be dominated by a never-ending battle: which of Boeing of the US and the pan-European Airbus have sold more large commercial aircraft.

By contrast, turboprops are only built for short distances, optimally 450 to 550km – roughly the distance from Manchester to Guernsey or Edinburgh to Bournemouth. Airbus, though, will be interested in ATR’s fortunes, as it owns the 33-year-old manufacturer in a 50:50 joint venture with Italy’s Finmeccanica.

ATR is one of only two turboprop makers left in the world and outsells its rival Bombardier by about five or six to one.

In 1990, there were 13 manufacturers, but most of these went bankrupt or moved on to more profitable businesses as regional airlines switched to quicker jets. Even though a mid 1990s redesign had dampened the noise to the extent that passengers no longer had to shout to be heard by the person sitting next to them, turboprops had no obvious future.  A decade ago, ATR was making an aircraft a month.

Today, however, it is a £951m turnover company that expects to deliver 84 to its customers this year. An ATR takes off or lands every seven seconds somewhere in the world.

What changed was the oil price. At $20 or $30 a barrel, fuel costs were not a problem and were outweighed by saving 10 minutes or so a trip. At $100 a barrel, jets were becoming far less economical.

A turboprop burns 40 per cent less fuel. Replacing 10 regional jets with 10 ATR 72-seaters, so the company claims, saves $16m (£9m) a year, with a further $4m in lower operating costs like engine maintenance.

Emerging markets with no preconceived ideas that propellers were for the Wright brothers and not for the 21st century have been at the forefront of the aircraft’s renewed growth. The Asia-Pacific region, for example, now accounts for nearly one-third of all ATR sales since 1981, when mature markets like Europe dominated.

But European regional aircraft, rarely replaced during the financial crisis, are ageing badly. Both short-distance jets and turboprops in the UK, of which there are around 100, have an average age of more than 20 years –at which time they should start being turned into cargo aircraft.

“Half of them were made by manufacturers that have disappeared, so there’s an obsolescence issue [in trying to replace faulty parts],” says Mr de Castelbajac. “We feel there’s a window for us in the UK … It is realistic that we could have one or two deals by the end of the year. There are a couple of serious discussions.”

There have already been some successes. The low-cost airline Flybe uses ATRs out of Southend airport, while the Irish flag carrier Aer Lingus is also a customer. CityJet, which operates many of its flights out of London City airport, is an obvious potential client, though Mr de Castelbajac declines to name names.

With Gatwick and Heathrow either filling up or at capacity, he thinks that smaller rivals will prove increasingly attractive to airlines looking for more routes. Regional airports are better suited to shorter travel and turboprops don’t need the longer runways required by jets, making them particularly suitable for flights to small islands off the coast of the UK.

Interestingly, though, the re-emergence of turboprops could conceivably have ramifications for high-speed rail.

If the lower costs of the aircraft were passed on to passengers, air fares could fall by up to a seventh, says Mr de Castelbajac, which could make them competitive with increasingly costly rail tickets.

If there were a flight from London City – which is close to Canary Wharf – to Birmingham, the flight and ground journey to and from the runways would be 36 minutes. The case for the £50bn High Speed Two has been largely built on getting between the two cities in 49 minutes.

Mr de Castelbajac knows he must break into markets like the UK quickly. “The niche is just too big,” he acknowledges, to be the bigger of just two turboprop manufacturers for much longer. The Chinese, for example, are developing their own aircraft, while Bombardier will surely come back at ATR soon.

“My job is to go to the UK and prove what we have here,” adds Mr de Castelbajac, who will surely be among the deals during the world’s foremost aviation jamboree next week.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Ben Little, right, is a Labour supporter while Jonathan Rogers supports the Green Party
general election 2015
News
The 91st Hakone Ekiden Qualifier at Showa Kinen Park, Tokyo, 2014
news
Life and Style
Former helicopter pilot Major Tim Peake will become the first UK astronaut in space for over 20 years
food + drinkNothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
News
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
football
Life and Style
health
Voices
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
news
Life and Style
Buyers of secondhand cars are searching out shades last seen in cop show ‘The Sweeney’
motoringFlares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £45,000: SThree: SThree Group have been well e...

Ashdown Group: IT Manager / Development Manager - NW London - £58k + 15% bonus

£50000 - £667000 per annum + excellent benefits : Ashdown Group: IT Manager / ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant / Telemarketer - OTE £20,000

£13000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Scotland's leading life insuran...

Ashdown Group: Training Programme Manager - City, London

£40000 - £45000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Training Programme Manag...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own