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Airlines eye turboprops to cut costs

Bombardier's new Q400 turboprop

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: Aviation's not a fun business to be in right now. Not for companies that fly planes -- witness the United news today -- and not for the companies that make those planes -- the big manufacturers Airbus and Boeing have both said they're keeping a nervous eye on things.

But a Canadian train company is seeing some opportunities here. Yeah, a train company -- Bombardier, it's called. It also happens to be the world's number three producer of commercial planes.

Today it announced quarterly profit more than tripled. The company said rising aircraft orders helped those numbers.

But many of the planes that're selling best today were much more common years ago than they are now.

Ashley Milne-Tyte reports.


Ashley Milne-Tyte: The morning rush hour is just dying down at Westchester County Airport, 20 miles north of New York City. There are still several small planes waiting to depart, listening for instructions from the control tower.

[Radio traffic]: Left on Charlie and cross 11-29... With you... Panorama One...

One of the planes, destined for Boston, is a turboprop with two propellers. The pilot climbs aboard, starts the engine and sends a deafening noise through the air.

Over the past 10 years, airlines have been replacing propeller planes with small regional jets. Jets offer a faster, quieter and less bumpy ride.

John Starace is Westchester County Airport's operations manager. He says most fliers prefer the sturdy look and feel of a small jet. Some quail when they spot propellers instead.

John Starace: We've had a few people that have walked out and they look and they look at their spouse and they say "No, no, I'm not getting on that plane. You mean I'm going on that?!" and then they get a little peaky, they get a little pale, maybe they want to faint.

No one's likely to faint at the sight of the latest turboprops. They're bigger for one thing. Most regional jets carry between 40 to 100 people. These new turboprops carry more than 70 passengers.

Continental put 74-seat turboprops on various short routes out of Newark this year. David Kinzelman heads corporate development for Continental. He says there was good reason to replace their regional jets…

David Kinzelman: I think per seat, we're probably saving 30 percent.

He says it's not just fuel savings that prompted the decision. The government caps flights in and out of the big New York area airports. Kinzelman says using the new, larger turboprops gives the airline an edge.

Kinzelman: This allows us to actually add capacity because in many cases we're now flying the 74 seats in place of a 50-seat aircraft, so we're actually able to grow the market with no more additional operations.

Despite those advantages, other big carriers say they're not planning to switch to turboprops, although that could change. Micheline Maynard covers the airline industry for the New York Times.

Micheline Maynard: Jet fuel prices now are just under $4 a gallon and that's up almost double from what it was a year ago and if these prices stay high, I think you'll see a lot more airlines gravitate to orders for these new turboprop planes.

Orders have shot up recently. Canadian firm Bombardier is one of two companies left in the world that still makes turboprops. It manufactures the Q400 model that Continental flies. In 2006, airlines around the world ordered 24 of the planes. Last year, they ordered nearly four times that number.

Maynard says more Americans are likely to find themselves strapped into turboprops in the next few years.

Maynard: With the airlines pulling down service to cities, eliminating cities altogether, if this is the only way they can get there, I think they'll be satisfied to fly them.

The new generation of turboprops certainly offers a more comfortable ride than the old ear-shattering bone shakers of the past, but safety concerns linger.

Last year, Scandinavian Airlines had a string of accidents involving the landing gear on its Q400 fleet. After an investigation, the airline ditched those particular aircraft. But since then, it has ordered more of the same planes.

In New York, I'm Ashley Milne-Tyte for Marketplace.

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Ten years ago, an Embraer guy went to our college and said that the common traveler think that anything with propellers is old technology. That was one of the main reasons for phasing out their Brasilia turboprop and switching to the ERJ 145 regional jet. The common people don't realize that a turboprop may be more advanced than a jet under the skin. In fact, in another occasion I visited the Embraer factory in Botucatu, Brazil, and I was struck by the fact that the nose section and tail assembly (not to mention the main fuselage) of both aircraft were interchangeable. The engineer I was talking about told us that the most advanced aircraft that Embraer has ever built was the CBA-123, a turboprop.

Do people realize that the difference between the turbo prop engine and the turbo fan engine on there 'jet' are not that different? And that bird inhalation two minutes after take off which caused an Airbus jet to ditch in the Hudson river would not have necessarily have been a problem for a turbo prop driven plane.

1. Jets are the Replacements of Smaller,Corporate Jets Planes will replace about 0.90% of the Old Planes of the 50's to the 80's 90's:, replacement new Corporate Jets planes are Better; Choose of faster Tranportation is jets Planes Corporate Jets Smaller Corporate Jets Aircraft too! The Turbo Porps Planes won"t be as many to, in the Future. They Will be Replaced to,or obersolated Planes of the Past years of the 50"s to 90"s too!

The statistics don't bear out the fear of turbo props. They have a better safety record than jets. They are also designed to take off and land on shorter runways(even gravel ones)with a lower landing speed leaving more options for the pilot in an emergency.

I think the big problem with turboprops is the crew that flies them. These guys/gals are paid poorly because they are the least experienced pilots in aviation. I am a P-3 Orion pilot in the Navy with a lot of multi-engine hours under my belt. The Navy pays me about 125 grand a year to fly turbo-props. To fly these in civilian aviation I would take over a 75% decrease in pay. Pay the pilots a little better to bring in the folks with experience and you would cut the mishap rate by a lot.

I think Ashley's point about safety as a concern is entirely relevant. She's not condemning propeller planes or saying that they're unsafe, she's talking about consumer perception. The fact that there are more auto or train accidents than there are turboprop accidents is irrelevant; the point is that the public perceives propeller planes to be comparatively fragile and unsafe. And perception is everything in the marketplace.

We've switched the photo to the Bombardier Q400.

Johnny Rinwald is right. That's not a Bombardier Q400. Was ATR part of the story and then edited out? You should use more care when selecting photos. I spotted it right away. Thank you.

The story emphasis is on Bombardier Q400 yet your photo is that its competitor, I think ATR. That's not at all the turboprop used at Newark or in Seattle (Horizon).

Going to agree with Jameson and Alan - Last I checked, Southwest and American seemed to have some "safety issues" on their main workhorse 737's. Each different kind of aircraft has operating difficulties related to its design and implementation. And aviation safety has vastly improved over the last 30 years across the board.

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