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.

Voices
On the last day of campaigning before the polling booths open, the SNP leader has written to voters in a final attempt to convince them to vote for independence
scotland decidesIs a huge gamble on oil keeping First Minister up at night?
Arts and Entertainment
Rosalind Buckland, the inspiration for Cider with Rosie died this week
booksBut what is it like to be the person who inspires a classic work of art?
Life and Style
techApple has just launched its latest mobile operating software – so what should you do first?
News
A male driver reverses his Vauxhall Astra from a tow truck
newsThe 'extremely dangerous' attempt to avoid being impounded has been heavily criticised
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Messi in action for Barcelona
filmSo what makes the little man tick?
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: An undercooked end (spoiler alert)
News
i100
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding
musicThe singer said 'the last thing I want to do is degrade'
Sport
Cesc Fabregas celebrates his first Chelsea goal
footballChelsea vs Schalke match report
Arts and Entertainment
Toby Jones (left) and Mackenzie Crook in BBC4’s new comedy The Detectorists
tvMackenzie Crook's 'Detectorists' makes the hobby look 'dysfunctional', they say
Life and Style
fashion

Olympic diver has made his modelling debut for Adidas

News
i100
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

Trainee Recruitment Consultant Birmingham

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Comission: SThree: The SThree group is a world lea...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham - Real Staffing

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Real Staffing are currently lo...

Recruitment Consultant - Soho - IT, Pharma, Public Sector

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £35,000 first year: SThree: The SThree group i...

Sales Executive

£20 - 24k (Uncapped Commission - £35k Year 1 OTE): Guru Careers: We are seekin...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week