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

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The Independent Online

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.