The Small Airliner Problem

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By Bjorn Fehrm

April 20, 2023, © Leeham News: New Sustainable aircraft projects, for economical reasons, target small airliner types as first projects and then, after proving the concept, to move up in size. The number of 9-seat, 19-seat, and 30- to 50-seat upstarts announced over the last years must be in the hundreds.

They all claim major advances in environmentally friendly propulsion and that their first aircraft have viable business models. In their business plans, there are elaborate explanations why local air services will flourish through the introduction of small, environmentally friendly aircraft.

The reality is another. The airliner size, where more than 100 aircraft per year are delivered, is 200 seats increasing, and sales below 50 seats have slowed to a trickle. ATRs, the leading supplier of airliners below 70 seats, delivered five 50-seater turboprops during 2022 out of a total of 29. The 50-seater model stayed at around 10% of deliveries between 2014 to 2019 before COVID, when total production was 70 to 80 turboprops per year.

There are economic reasons for these low numbers, and these are not changing for the better. We will explore these reasons using our airliner Performance and Cost model in a series of articles, where we compare operational costs for 9-, 19- and 50-seaters to the larger aircraft.

Figure 1. The latest small airliner project from Maeve Aerospace. A 50-seater battery-based electric aircraft. Source: Maeve Aerospace.

  • We show the cost factors and their proportions for different airliner sizes.
  • Then we look at how these factors scale with aircraft size.

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