There is much to like about the commercial turboprop market’s prospects, especially those for maintenance on the Bombardier Q400’s Pratt & Whitney Canada (P&WC) PW150 engines.
If fuel prices ever return to pre-2014 levels—something analysts do not see happening for several more years at least—manufacturers of current-generation turboprops will have even more to celebrate, as will the companies that maintain them and their engines.
FlyBe operates one of the world’s largest Q400 fleets. Credit: Nigel Howarth/Aviation Week & Space Technology
Utilization of smaller regional jets is fading, creating opportunities in the 70-90-seat range, while emerging markets like India and smaller Asia-Pacific countries are ripe for the introduction of aircraft that can turn a profit moving fewer than 100 passengers.
The Q400 is biding its time, and its broad operator base gives it a foundation to persevere until its market segment rallies. Aviation Week’s Commercial Fleet and MRO Forecast data showed 539 Q400s in service with 61 airlines and other operators as of June 1. The top 10 are spread over North America, Europe and the Asia-Pacific region. Each counts at least 14 aircraft in its fleet, led by Horizon Air (52), FlyBe (49), WestJet Encore (40), Jazz Aviation (39) and QantasLink (31). The geographic distribution bodes well for the Q400 aftermarket—the biggest share of which is, not surprisingly, Pratt & Whitney Canada PW150 engine work.
The PW150A is the exclusive powerplant for the Q400, which sits in a market that has generated demand for more than 1,200 engines. Aviation Week’s forecast sees the market improving, with the in-service fleet surpassing 600 aircraft in 2020.
Given the program’s status and factoring in a few retirements, that may be optimistic. Bombardier shows 547 Q400s delivered as of March 31, but the backlog stood at just 26 after six deliveries in the first three months of the year.
Despite the meager backlog, the program has shown some life in 2017. Bombardier in early June announced a five-aircraft order from an undisclosed customer.
While the Q400’s well-established fleet and operator base will remain the primary generator of PW150 usage and aftermarket work, the market soon will go beyond the venerable Bombardier turboprop. The PW150A powers the Antonov An-132D, the re-engined and upgraded An-32 that made its first flight on March 31.
Developed in partnership with Saudi Arabia’s Taqnia Aeronautics Co. and King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology, the An-132D is serving as a demonstrator for what its backers expect to be a family of regional transport and passenger aircraft. It features the same Dowty R408 propellers that fly on PW150-powered Q400s, as well as Honeywell avionics.
Production will take place in both Ukraine and Saudi Arabia. The Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF) has signed on as a launch customer, with a six-aircraft commitment. P&WC said in late 2015 that the An-132D program could drive demand for about 400 PW150 engines.
Meanwhile, an upgraded version, the PW150C, is being supplied to China’s Avic for its MA700 turboprop. The PW150C will feature a third-stage power turbine, a modified reduction gearbox to support the aircraft’s larger-diameter propellers, and an enhanced low-pressure compressor, P&WC says.
Launched in 2013, the MA700’s original time line called for a first flight this year. But design and production delays have pushed that back to 2020 at the earliest.
While the schedule delays are likely a temporary setback, a bigger hurdle in the pursuit of sales beyond China could be approval from the FAA or European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). Work on a revised bilateral agreement between the U.S. and China, which would provide a path for FAA acceptance of Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) certification approvals for aircraft above 19 seats, has stalled.
In April, EASA and the CAAC said they are working on a plan for the European regulator to validate the Comac 919 regional jet’s certification. That could open the door for subsequent EASA approvals of CAAC airworthiness certificates, including for the MA700.
While EASA approval would do little to help a Chinese aircraft’s prospects in the U.S., it would open up Europe as a market. It also could give other countries confidence to accept the aircraft’s certification. Since the U.S. market is hardly ripe for Chinese-aircraft sales, the lack of an FAA approval would be all but offset by an EASA blessing.