Small airlines face replacement challenges

Aug. 15, 2017, © Leeham Co.: Small airlines face continuous challenges about acquiring modern aircraft at prices they can afford.

There was once a number of manufacturers producing small airliners. British Aerospace (BAe) produced the 19-seat Jetstream and Beech the 19-seat 1900. Saab built the 340 and later the 2000. BAe tried to update the old Hawker Siddeley 748 with the ATP, Advanced Turbo Prop. Fokker upgraded the F-27 to the F-50. Embraer got its start with the small Bandierante and really hit the mark with the Brasilia.

Bombardier produced the Dash-8 40-seat turboprop in competition with ATR’s ATR-42 and both compete with a 70-90 seat turboprop. BBD dropped its Dash 8 and barely holds on with the Q400. ATR is the dominant player now. (China produces a turboprop, but it’s mostly a captive-market airplane.)

BAE, Saab and Beech exited the commuter airplane business. Fokker went out of business. Embraer moved to jets.

This leaves smaller, independent regional and commuter airlines in a real bind. There are simply no replacements for the 19- to 30-seat airliner, save one: the Viking Twin Otter. More about this below.

Very small choices

There are several choices for the very small aircraft, each designed with a versatile mission. Each is a single-engine aircraft, all powered by versions of the Pratt & Whitney Canada PT-6. Range and performance is similar.

  • Cessna Caravan: This seats 10-14 people but usually carries nine. It’s better known as a cargo-combi workhorse than as a pure passenger airplane. The Caravan is used by FedEx to serve small communities. Like its competition, it can be fitted for skis or floats.
  • Quest Kodiak: The newest entrant, the Kodiak was a project of Bruce Kennedy and his partners. Kennedy retired early as chairman of Alaska Air Group to launch this plane, intended to be an inexpensive aircraft to serve third world markets and a variety of missions, including mercy flights. Kennedy died in 2007 at age 68 in a private plane crash. His vision lives on in the Kodiak.
  • Pilatus PC-12: This Swiss aircraft is called “the ultimate aerial SUV” by European Business Air News and which is featured on the Pilatus website. It’s a catchy

    The Pilatus PC-12 at the Abbotsford Air Show. Some small airlines use this aircraft. Photo by Scott Hamilton.

    tag line with which the competition may take issue, but it’s an apt description of the multi-mission role the airplane performs.

  • Viking Twin Otter: A small company on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada, purchased all the plans to several de Havilland aircraft from the latter’s successor, Bombardier. Among them: the venerable Twin Otter, one of the original 19-seat airliners. Other plans purchased included the de Havilland Beaver and two models of water bombers. There are no plans to resurrect the Beaver, but Viking will relaunch one of the water bombers.
Abbotsford Air Show

Each of these airplanes was on display at the Abbotsford Air Show last week. Abbotsford, about a two- hour drive north of Seattle, is a growing event that is probably the largest in Western North America. LNC visited the show for the first time. We spoke with sales representatives of the Caravan, Kodiak and Pilatus; and with the procurement officer of Viking, among other activities.

Multi-role airplanes

With LNC’s focus on commercial aviation, we asked the four companies about the prospects and use of their aircraft by small airlines that face aging aircraft and which have limited financial resources to buy replacement aircraft.

One challenge, of course, is that some of the airlines operate 30-34 passenger aircraft and there are none in this category being produced today. This means downsizing in their cases.

Each of the aircraft at the Abbotsford show serves multi-role missions: passengers, charters, cargo, medivac, humanitarian flights and charters for high-end resorts.

The aircraft all have large doors in the aft fuselage that permits cargo loading and medivac capability. Each has a range of 1,000 miles or somewhat more. Each cruises from less than 200 knots to as high as 285 knots (the latter being the Pilatus). All are powered by versions of the PT6, equipped with either three, four or five-blade propellers.

Twin Otter

As for the smaller aircraft needed by airlines, the Twin Otter is the closest, at 19-passengers. But at a price of $6m-$7m, depending on the configuration, it’s largely out of the price range for the smaller carriers.

More than 100 Twin Otters have been delivered by the privately held Viking, which won’t disclose how many orders have been placed. Most are to governments,

One of the airlines using the Viking Twin Otter. Source: Google images.

including 10 to Russia, which has interest in more.

Airlines are less interested, the company says. The Twin Otter first entered service in 1966, at a time when there was still a fairly sizable need for rough-field, STOL (Short Take Off and Landing) aircraft, a feature of the airplane. A few commuter airlines also used the airplane Air Illinois, from lakefront Chicago Meigs Field with its short, 3,900 ft runway, to the Illinois Capitol of Springfield, was one such user. Even Ozark Airlines, then called a “local service carrier,” used the Twin Otter in competition with Air Illinois over the same route.

Today, the company says, few airlines need a “low and slow STOL aircraft” like they did when the Twin Otter was developed.

“The Otter is a niche aircraft, a rugged aircraft,” a company official said.

One inhibitor to sales: the original Twin Otter was built so “robustly” that many are still flying. More than 900 were built.

Cessna Caravan

The Cessna Caravan PT-6 engine, which is also used on the Viking Twin Otter, Pilatus and Quest Kodiak in variants. the four aircraft were on display at the Abbotsford Air Show last week. Photo by Scott Hamilton.

More than 2,500 of these utilitarian airplanes have been built since the first flight in 1982. The principal users are FedEx and various air forces, but with nine passengers, it’s also been used in airline service. It can carry up to 14 passengers. It’s cost ranges from just under $2m to more than $2.5m, depending on the configuration.

An under-belly cargo pod is a common feature.

The Caravan is capable of being equipped with floats.

Pilatus PC-12

The Pilatus also is a nine-passenger airplane when in all-passenger configuration. This is a pressurized aircraft, with a range of 1,845nm, the highest in the group. It is capable of unimproved airfield operations and has short field performance.

The airplane is and has been used by several airlines, ranging from Bhutan to the US. Governments also use the airplane. In the case of the US, Customs and Border Protection is an operator.

Quest Kodiak

Quest Kodiak at the Abbotsford Air Show. The airplane was designed to be an inexpensive aircraft for missionary work, but it has other uses as well. Photo by Scott Hamilton.

The newest entrant into this field is the Quest Kodiak. This is an eight passenger aircraft that was designed for STOL operations, capable of taking off in less than 1,000 ft with a full load. Like its competitors, it can be configured as a business aircraft, for passenger operations, cargo and other uses. It can be equipped with floats.

The price is between $2m and $2.5m, depending on the configuration.

More than 200 have been sold; with 100 delivered. Its principal use was intended to be for missionary service, but an order for 20 from a Japanese charter company was placed in 2016.

Common thread

Aside from the common uses, each of the companies LNC spoke with at Abbotsford touted the reliability and durability of the PWC PT-6 engine as crucial to the operation of the airplanes. The PT-6 has been around since 1960 with very low engine shut-down rates and long Time Between Overhaul periods of up to 9,000 hours.

The aircraft on display at Abbotsford had three, four and five-bladed props. The Pilatus PC-12, which was the one at Abbotsford, uses the PT-6A-67. The Grand Caravan, the slightly heavier model, uses the PT-6A-140. The Kodiak uses the PT-6A-34, as does the Twin Otter.

New entrant

The Tecnam P2012 Traveller of Italy is an emerging player. Cape Air of the USA signed a commitment for up to 100 P2012s. The twin-engine 11-passenger, high-wing aircraft is powered by the Lycoming TEO-540-C1A piston. Like the other airplanes, the P2012 is a multi-role aircraft. It’s intended use includes hydro, medivac, cargo and parachuting. Its cost is about $2.3m. Delivery is slated for 2019.



28 Comments on “Small airlines face replacement challenges

    • Of Course the Dornier 328, though it’s a high Performer and so a high-priced Option amung the listed a/c. Plans to revive it as TRJ328 seem to have lost momentum, do they?

  1. BBD dropped its Dash 8 and barely holds on with the Q400.
    Well, they gave the Dash 8 a bit of a revamp and called it the Q400…

      • Dash-8-300 50 seats, reduced to 48 seats by Piedmont last year. Its not beneficial for airlines to operate such small planes. Having aircraft with 9-30 seats or so is a waste of slots at hub airports and adds to the ground traffic and slows up operations by their slow approach speeds. With the current shortage of pilots,it makes more sense to use larger aircraft moving more people per flight. If an airport cannot support 50 seat aircraft, its a waste of resources.

        • LOL Not all flights need a 200+ seat aircraft, but people still want to fly. It’s a lot faster than driving. Small aircraft or fill the highways with more vehicles?

  2. There is also the 20 pax unpressurized Do 228 made by Ruag, PZL M28 Skytruck and Let L-410 Turbolet, the in development 14 pax Evektor EV-55 Outback, the 10 seat NZ PAC P-750 XSTOL, and the Britten-Norman BN-2 Islander seems to be still produced. I think the 26 seat CASA C-212 Aviocar is still in production.

    Competing with the caravan and kodiak, the 10 seats GippsAero GA10 is just certified. Twice as light and twice cheaper. The same were studying relaunching production of an 18 seat GAF Nomad, also twice as light as its DHC-6 and Do228 competitors.

    There is a real gap for pressurized 20-30 seaters, but I’m not sure there is a real market for those nowadays.

    Most would really benefit from high power diesel engines, to cut on high cost and fuel consumption of small turbines.

    • See today’s Flight International (p48) re the Islander as Britain’s best-selling airliner with production approaching 1,300; a pity about the accompanying photo being of a three-engined Trislander variant.

    • Yes, there are a couple of other options not covered in the original article. Also the Y-12F:

      It is interesting that you mention diesels, a couple of years ago a Rostech/Diamond joint venture aimed to develop an all-composite 9/19-seat family powered by V8/V12 diesel engines. The 19-seater seemed to be aimed squarely at the Do228NG, the 9-seat shrink was kind of Xingu-stubby 😉

      Not sure if the project is still going, but it would be a pity if not.

      • Flew the Y12F in Vanuatu a few times. Interesting advance. Glass cockpit. Same Pratt engines.

      • Thanks for the Rostec/DAI link, I didn’t know about. It doesn’t seem to advance since 2013, but Diamond’s Austro participated in the AE440 440hp diesel V8 demonstrated in an EC120, so the engine could be coming. Still, they are a bit heavy but they chase the pressurized market (long distances in Siberia), not the close islander hops sub FL100.

        • Good point on it having a pressurized cabin – B1900C/Xingu may be a more accurate way to describe the target market.

          Diesel engines and pressurization drive up the weight (though thanks to composite construction, it does compare favourably to its aforementioned benchmarks), of course. OTOH the Russians may arguably have short inter-island hops covered with the Technoavia Rysachok and the An-2 based TVS-2DTS. Alternatively, the N-219 from the island nation of Indonesia?

          Another option to add to the list of aircraft in the same class as those mentioned in the original post might be the P.180 Avanti.

  3. Hello Scott,

    Is the let410 and c212 part if this marketing?

    No pressurized 19 place commuter available

    Best regards

  4. What about the Beechcraft King Air? Is this not also in the same market?

  5. Am I under the correct impression that, with Bjorn’s electric aircraft corners in mind, we are being prepared to address this market?

    (BTW thank you for the series, Bjorn 🙂

  6. Cessna Denali?

    New GE engine that will force PW to up the efficiency of the PT6.

    • New engines and their troubles are likely the last thing these small operators want, even if it is done by GE.
      the GE93 is only looking at 4-6k hrs between overhauls, not the 9K of the PT-6

      The GE engine core will largely produced in Italy and Poland ( GE Avio) with final assembly in Prague at the GE Walter plant.

      • Ahh but you know GE is going to be fully invested in making sure the engine runs right and is supported.

        GE has as good and probably a better footprint as P&W around the world.

        It should be most interesting, efficiency vs proven rugged, reliable engine.

        Cessna presence is also wide spread.

        I doubt anyone has any qualms going with a new engine with its backing.

  7. It’s interesting that the new Tecnam P2012 is piston powered. In my naivety I had assumed that everything was headed towards turbo props. Would they have chosen a piston engine for economy (fuel or purchase price or maintenance)?

  8. I would think that with the new geared fan technology a lean engine optimized for 320-350 kts, with low noise and high reliability would be preferred. I guess between 30-50 seats would be required to attract regional business.

  9. But this:
    “Today, the company says, few airlines need a “low and slow STOL aircraft” like they did when the Twin Otter was developed.
    “The Otter is a niche aircraft, a rugged aircraft,” a company official said.”
    Leaves the DO228NG the only real alternative and it is a bid disappointing it wasn’t considered within the list…

  10. Or upgrade the Twin Otter?

    New Wing, retracing gear, and you have the ideal.

    BBD did it with the Dash 7, became the Dash 8 and then the Q-400.

    • Sorry, but what do have the DHC-7 and -8 in common accept of the manufacturer?!?

        • Maybe parts of the cylindrical section of the fuselage, okay? But nose and rear are redesigned, door arrangement is completely different and engines are only of the same manufacturer (PT6 vs. PW120).

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