Continuing our series on leading aircraft in emerging markets, Eways Aviation presents a focus on turboprop aircraft.
Over the years, turboprop aircraft has been growing in popularity in emerging markets for its versatility, ruggedness and overall lower running costs than jet-powered airplanes. They have proven themselves useful in a plethora of aviation applications from charter flights and cargo transport, commercial passenger travel and even agriculture.
In Africa, one of the key moments turboprops arrived on the marketplace was when the Ghanaian airline PassionAir acquired three Bombardier Q400 aircraft. Although this specific model was designed for use in colder climates, their application in Africa exposed turboprop’s potential in emerging markets.
On other continents too, the practicality of turboprop planes saw their swift integration in aviation networks. In Indonesia for instance; a country that inhabits over 6000 islands, found the airplanes useful for navigating the marine landscape. Also in Brazil, the aircraft was applied for domestic travel between 127 cities to avoid constructing railways and roads that would damage the fragile Amazon rainforest.
What is Turboprop Aircraft?
In essence, turboprop planes achieve flight using a turbine engine in combination with aircraft propellers. Unlike turbojet technology, turbine engines do not generate sufficient thrust to fly, since the majority of the engine’s power is used to power the propellers.
Due to their weaker nature than turbojet engines, turboprops fly at lower altitudes and perform better at flight speeds below 725 km/h, which is why they are generally preferred for smaller aircraft. Even so, there are larger models that are capable of achieving speeds over 926km/h such as the Lockheed L-188 Electra and the Tupolev Tu-95.
Although they are expensive, turboprop aircraft are commonly used in civilian aviation particularly in small commuter aircraft for their practicality and fuel efficiency.
What makes Turboprop Aircraft Suitable for Emerging Countries?
Several attributes make the new breed of turboprop aircraft especially effective for navigating emerging countries, particularly in regions having weak infrastructure along with limited resources and difficult landscapes.
For starters, these airplanes offer impressive short take-off and landing (STOL) capabilities, enabling pilots and passengers to access remote locations around the world, especially in areas that feature less than ideal runways and unpaved landing strips. For this reason, some airports in the world only accommodate this type of aircraft, such as the Tenzing-Hillary airport in Nepal; built on a flat mountain plain as a gateway to Mount Everest, its extremely short runway of 527m combined with extreme weather conditions makes it known as the most dangerous airport in the world. Following extensive training, pilots that frequent Tenzing-Hilary are especially adept at exploiting turboprop planes’ STOL abilities.
Turboprops also fare well in civil aviation because of their ability to undertake numerous short-duration flights daily with significantly less fuel consumption per passenger than other aircraft. Furthermore, recent advancements in noise-cancelling mechanisms have given passengers more pleasant travel experiences compared to the past, when propeller noise was one of the main jets were favoured over turboprops.
With lower operating costs, commercial airlines have grown capable of transporting increased passengers to destinations that in the past would have been inaccessible – requiring difficult journeys between islands or traversing rough terrain.
Leading Turboprop Aircraft
The two most common aircraft manufacturers to penetrate the turboprop marketplace are the Canadian Bombardier and the Franco-Italian Avions de transport régional (ATR):
Formed in 1981 as a joint conglomerate between the French Aérospatiale (now Airbus) and Aeritalia (now Leonardo) from Italy, Avions de transport régionals (ATR) produces two leading models, the ATR 42 and the larger ATR 72 aircraft and their respective variants. The company has sold over 1,500 airplanes with over 200 operators in more than 100 countries.
The aircraft are known for their quiet cabins that are achieved using noise-absorbent materials that dampen the propeller volume. Furthermore, the cabins are well equipped with overhead bins to allow for increased storage of carry-on luggage and cargo. Combined with the integrated handrail to allow safe mid-flight passage for travelers, ATR airplanes are well adapted for commercial use.
On the more technical side, one of the main features favoured by pilots in ATR aircraft is the ClearVision enhanced vision system (EVS); using a head-mounted visor, pilots are given a real-time enhanced view of the exterior which is extremely useful when taking off and landing in less than ideal visibility conditions, particularly in smaller airports. One of the first airlines to order the feature was Aurigny, from the Channel Islands, a region commonly afflicted by fog. The technology can also be combined with ATR’s Synthetic Vision System (SVS), a technology that gives pilots digital imagery of the terrain whilst outlining obstacles. The Bhutanese flyer Drukair has acquired ATR-42 aircraft that utilises the technology to assist pilots during landing in unfavourable weather conditions.
“Drukair’s decision to purchase the latest version of our product not only validates the versatility and operational efficiency of our -600 series aircraft but also affirms the value of our policy of continuous development. Offering valuable solutions which have a genuine and immediate impact on our customer’s business will always be a priority for us at ATR. We look forward to contributing to the famous “Gross National Happiness” of the people of Bhutan, long into the future.” remarked ATR Chief Executive Officer, Christian Scherer
Such technologies combined with the pleasant voyage for passengers identify why ATR aircraft have proved their presence in emerging markets.
The second leading manufacturer of commercial turboprop aircraft is Bombardier from Canada, known mostly for Q400 model and CRJ airplanes.
The company has been actively producing regional aircraft since the 1990s and it was in 1992 that Bombardier acquired the production line of de Havilland Canada DHC-8 twin-engine turboprops that had been first released in 1984.
At first, the -8 came in three sizes; 40 seats -100 along with the larger -200, the 50 seater -300 and the 90-seat -400 models. Today Bombardier has simplified and creates only a refined version of the -400, known commercially as the Q400 model.
This model is extremely popular in emerging markets for several reasons; for starters, it is one of the most fuel-efficient turboprops available without compromising for speed. It also improves the efficiency of boarding and deplaning procedures, by integrating doors in both the front and rear of the plane. Furthermore like its ATR counterparts, the Q400 also features an impressive noise-attenuation system that uses regulated aircraft vibrations to minimize propeller-generated noise, therefore keeping passengers comfortable during their flights.
Away from their growing popularity in emerging markets, over the years turboprops have fallen out of use in many markets, being replaced by light jet aircraft that passengers find more comfortable but, there are some impressive advancements that could potentially revolutionise their flying experience and significantly reduce their carbon footprint. This comes from the aircraft manufacturer Embrarer, which is proposing several design revamps that will give turboprop planes a flight system similar to jets and make them attractive to regional flyers around the globe.
Whilst still on the drawing board, the company has outlined plans to mount the propellers on the rear of the airplane, whilst gradually reducing carbon emissions to the point where their planes will have a negligible carbon footprint by 2050. Ultimately, such advancements can lead to a resurgence of turboprop aircraft in the light aircraft market.
“Our proposal is to offer a high technology 70 to 90 seat turboprop with the same cross-section of the E-jets. Very comfortable, no middle seats and spacious overhead bins. The rear fuselage-mounted engines will provide a quiet cabin and allow jet bridge compatibility. With game-changing characteristics, this turboprop will replace the current 50-seat regional jets in very important markets.” explains Luis Carlos Affonso – Senior Vice President of Engineering, Technology, and Corporate Strategy – Embraer.
The first rear-mounted propeller aircraft would cut down emissions by up to 40% by burning 20-40% less fuel. Meanwhile, other concepts proposed by the company include an electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft that Embraer plans to commence testing by 2025. Furthermore, the company is also in the works to create hydrogen-powered aircraft by 2025.
Staying in the Sky
Whilst some have considered propeller thrust planes out of date in favour of turbojet aircraft, as the technology continues to improve it appears that turboprop aircraft will remain in aviation networks well into the future. With their reliability and lowered costs, as well as their ability to serve remote locations it certainly stands that emerging markets will continue to use turboprops for the foreseeable future and beyond.