Why Aren't More Turboprop Planes Flying in the US?
You may have experienced a turboprop aircraft in your travels; perhaps a Q400 or ATR72, likely flying to or from a small airport. One such aircraft recently made headlines when it was stolen and crashed. Turboprops are, in many parts of the world, a workhorse of short-haul flying. But you just don't see them a lot in the US anymore.
What, exactly, is a turboprop?
Despite the name, a turboprop is not a piston-driven aircraft. It has a jet engine, or engines, turning a propeller as opposed to a fan. Sure, it’s a "prop" plane colloquially; this is a source of confusion for many passengers. And sometimes that confusion leads to reticence on the part of passengers to fly them.
There are two primary manufacturers: Bombardier in Canada, and ATR, a France-based joint venture between Airbus and Italy's Leonardo. Their products—the Q400 and the ATR72—go head to head in the turboprop market. The Q400 seats up to 90 passengers, and it also comes in a smaller version with 50 seats known as Q300. The ATR72 welcomes 72 passengers, with a smaller model, the ATR42, seating 42. They're at least 40% cheaper than jets of similar sizes: the Q400 list price is $32 million, and the ATR72 is approximately $26 million. You may have seen the Bombardier plane referred to as Dash 8, its earlier name.
Who Flies Them?
Bombardier’s Q400s are a staple of Canadian carriers. Air Canada Express, WestJet and Porter each operate the aircraft there, and in large numbers. FlyBe in England, Qantas Link in Australia and Alaska Airlines’s Horizon Air subsidiary in the US are also major operators. You'll see the Q400 on many regional routes out of Seattle. United Express stopped flying the smaller, earlier Q200 in early 2018 and Piedmont, the American Airlines subsidiary, eulogized its last one this summer. Unfortunately for Bombardier, Alaska announced in 2016 and confirmed with TPG that it plans to phase out the Q400s, now that it has acquired the Embraer E175 regional jet "with three classes of service," according to an Alaska spokesperson. There is hope for the Q400, however. Spicejet, a large Indian domestic carrier, announced an order for 50 aircraft in late 2017, the biggest order for Q400s ever.
So where does that leave the Q400 in the US? Not in a good place. Soon there will be none operated by US passenger airlines.
Indonesia's Wing’s Air, Azul Brazilian Airlines and Jet Airways in India are major operators of ATRs today. American Eagle last flew the ATR in 2013. ATRs have never been a commercial hit in the US.
Why Not More in the US?
Still, why don’t we see more turboprops like the Q400 flying in the US?
"It's a very good question!" said Charles Duncan, EVP and Chief Strategy Officer for WestJet, the Canadian airline, in an interview with TPG. "I ask myself that frequently."
Duncan is an experienced hand in the airline industry, having worked at Continental and United, including several years in Japan. "Both Japanese carriers [ANA and JAL] operate the Dash 8 there. In our own experience in Canada, I think they are excellent aircraft for how we use them, flights that are an hour and five minutes to an hour and ten minutes," he said.
Duncan agreed with Bombardier's characterization of the aircraft in marketing materials as the "Network Builder". WestJet operates 47 Q400 aircraft to 37 destinations, and the Q400 is the sole equipment at 15 of them.
"Take Brandon, Manitoba," said Duncan, of the town of 48,000 in the Canadian prairies. "We brought back commercial air service there, and it's the first time in 20 years."
“Our analysis shows the ATR72 and Q400 to be more economical than regional jets on routes up to 300 miles," said Scott Hamilton from Leeham News and Comment, the airline industry report. "Over 300 miles, regional jets become more economical.”
“Many airlines want the flexibility of range rather than two fleet types, so despite the short-range inefficiencies [on a cost-per-seat basis] many choose a regional jet for all routes,” Hamilton explained.
That said, the trip costs of a turboprop would be significantly lower—some estimate by as much 25%— than the costs of a regional jet. That's a key selling point for the manufacturers.
For some airlines in countries with rougher infrastructure and peculiar climates, turboprops are almost a mandated choice because of their performance. (Indeed, the short-field capabilities were the reason they were developed by de Havilland in the first place.) Take Ethiopian Airlines, which operates out of many "hot and high" airports in its home country, where thin high-altitude air and high temperatures degrade aircraft performance. It flies the Q400 because it can take off from shorter fields with a shorter takeoff roll, and build its network just the same. (Just consider the airline’s home base, Addis Ababa, at 7,600 feet above sea level.)
It’s also significantly more fuel efficient than a regional jet—some 30% by industry estimates. Between the two competitors, the Q400 is slightly more piggish on fuel than the ATR72, but Bombardier counseled operators to slow the aircraft down in cruise to gain better fuel efficiency.
Do Passengers Avoid Turboprops?
Most passengers are not likely to consider the type of aircraft they will fly—the well-traveled TPG reader aside, of course. But, it’s an oft-stated mantra that passengers prefer jets over turboprops. Piedmont said as much when it retired the Dash 8s this summer.
It's not the experience of Porter Airlines, which flies from Toronto's Billy Bishop Toronto City airport (YTZ.) Porter flies a fleet solely of Q400 aircraft. (They must, for now—their home base located on the Toronto waterfront has a shorter field and jets are not permitted to operate there.)
“We took on an educational role in our start-up phase (in 2006) by promoting the aircraft’s benefits. Once people tried it, this became a non-issue,” said Porter’s Brad Cicero in an email to TPG.
“Self-interested parties, whether manufacturers or other airlines, have tried to dismiss turboprops over the years,” he said. “One of our competitors initially did so as a transparent attempt to dissuade passengers from considering flying with us. It didn’t work and now this competitor happens to be one of the largest Q400 operators in the world.”
Zing, Air Canada.
Loud? Yes, they could be
The first generation Dash 8s were known to be very loud aircraft. A passenger definitely understood they were on a "prop" plane. The relatively very powerful Pratt & Whitney PW150 engine audibly lets you know when it’s fully powered and ready to roll: you can almost see the captain standing on the brakes up front, holding the plane back before it begins the takeoff roll. Even today, riding aboard a turboprop is flying in a way that sitting in first class in an A380 is not.
When Bombardier rebranded the Dash 8 plane as the Q Series, it was done to emphasize that the new design was quiet. According to the manufacturer of the noise canceling system used in the aircraft, microphones embedded in the aircraft cabin “listen” to the noise and vibration in the aircraft cabin. A computer interprets these signals, and creates noise that is the opposite phase created by the engine or propeller, canceling it out.
The passenger experience is what one would expect from a short-haul aircraft. Take Porter, for example. Its Q400s, arranged in a 2-2 seat layout — ATRs are the same — have a small premium section with 34" seat pitch; economy has a 32" seat pitch. This legroom is comparable to what you'd find in the average Boeing 737 or Airbus A320. There are no middle seats.
Bags, however, are a challenge, which is not unique to turboprops.
“Passengers often have to gate-check or valet-check bags on the Q400, despite recent advancements in overhead bin space. It's just a pain to have to wait in the jetway to reclaim your bag,” said Hamilton.
As for Duncan, the 6'3" airline executive prefers the Q400, and not just because WestJet runs them. "I can actually stand up in a Q400. It is definitely not as cramped as the Embraer E145 or the CRJ-200" regional jets.
Boarding is often different from jets, though — turboprops frequently don't pair with a jetbridge, either by design or choice. Passenger will walk from a bus or a terminal across the ramp onto the plane. That can be a problem if the weather is bad. But Porter, for example, brings you right to Terminal B at EWR via jetbridge.
For the AvGeek
I personally enjoy flying on the Q400 and have flown on all versions of the Dash 8 / Q400 family, and in all sorts of weather. (There’s only so many ways to get from Calgary to Regina in January.) The unique design of the aircraft means that sitting in a window seat, you can watch the landing gear go up or down, kiss the runway with a plume of rubber and quickly absorb the weight of the aircraft — a real AvGeek thrill. It's a high-wing aircraft, meaning the wings are mounted above the fuselage: everyone in a window seat gets a beautiful view. Porter Airlines and the Q400 is also easily the best and most scenic way to get from New York to Toronto.
Perhaps the best part though? You won't even notice much difference from a regional jet in terms of speed and comfort. Just stick your face to the window, and take it all in.
Try it sometime.
Mike Arnot is the founder of Boarding Pass NYC, a New York-based travel brand, and a private pilot.