Much of the focus on Bombardier centers on its CSeries effort, and rightly so—the manufacturer’s entry into the small narrowbody market is seen as the key to its commercial aircraft division’s future. But while the Canadian aircraft maker’s priority may be to push its newest aircraft through the certification phase and into service, it has not halted progress on its established initiatives—including the Q400.
Bombardier in August delivered its first high-capacity Q400 to Thailand-based low-cost carrier Nok Air. The 86-seat variant uses space set aside in previous versions for a front baggage compartment, modifies a galley and wardrobe closet, and swaps a baggage door for an emergency exit. The result: 10 more seats at a 29-in. pitch, one inch less than the standard 76-seat configuration.
Delivery of the first high-capacity variant came just weeks after the manufacturer launched a combi version of the aircraft. Available in configurations that start with a 50-seat “high cargo” variant, the model—which as of early September had no confirmed customers—the effort is Bombardier’s way of trying to shake loose some orders for its entry amid a brightening environment for regional turboprops.
“The Q400 team has done a great job at creating variance to Q400,” CEO Pierre Beaudoin said in July. “We are seeing good opportunities . . . small volumes to start, but this is how you get very large customers. They introduce the product to their airline.”
At the end of 2003, large turboprop manufacturers had a backlog of just 49 aircraft, and 50-seat regional jets were all the rage. Over the next decade, rising fuel costs helped change the landscape, a boon for ATR (which had not booked a single order in 2002) and for Bombardier. Both gained footholds with their turboprop programs. ATR’s rise has been steeper—it racked up 144 orders from Jan. 1 to July 13 this year, pushing its backlog to 325 aircraft, or about four years of production.
Bombardier, on the other hand, had a backlog of just 35 as of June 30 after delivering 10 aircraft, or about 1.6 per month in the first six months of the year. The backlog has hovered there for nearly two years, and is up from year-end 2011, when it stood at just 24. Orders during this year’s Farnborough International Airshow pushed the Q400 program past the 500-order firm commitment mark.
Such figures help explain why Bombardier is exploring partnership deals in Russia and China that would include double-digit orders. Bombardier in August 2013 announced a tentative deal with Russian state-owned Rostekhnologii for up to 100 Q400s and an assembly line in Russia. The deal was slated for a 2014 close and still may wrap up in the coming months, but tensions between Russia and the West over the territorial battle in eastern Ukraine may be creating additional hurdles.
“Commercial discussions are continuing and both parties are motivated to [work toward] the assembly of a turboprop airplane,” Beaudoin told analysts during his company’s second-quarter earnings call July 31. “What’s going on in Russia has not affected our commercial discussion. Of course, when and if we get an agreement, we will actually consider the overall environment and sanctions.”
During the same call, Beaudoin confirmed that talks with China “on a similar project” are “active” but are not as advanced as the Russia talks.
“We think there is a big opportunity for turboprops in China, but if you’re going to grab this opportunity you’re likely going to have to assemble a product locally,” he explained.
One of the Q400’s consistent areas of market penetration has been the U.S., where Horizon Airlines and Republic Airways Holdings have long operated double-digit fleets of the aircraft. By contrast, no U.S. operators are flying ATR’s larger turboprops.
But Republic, seeking to streamline its fleet to just Embraer 170s and E175s in the next few years, reached a deal to lease 24 of its 31 Q400s to Flybe as part of a larger deal to acquire more E175s. Flybe already operates 41 Q400s and will use the Republic aircraft to grow its fleet and replace some with expiring leases. The Q400s will fit with Flybe’s recently revamped strategy to focus on long, thin regional routes that lack the demand for mainline service.
Republic will return three more Q400s to lessors and sell the remaining four that it owns. All will be removed by the third quarter of 2016.
For now, Republic is one of 16 operators with at least 10 Q400s. Horizon has the most, with 51, followed by Flybe, with 41. Seven of the double-digit fleets are in Europe, four in Asia, four in North America and one in Africa.
A version of this article appears in the October 6 issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology.