While turboprop manufacturers are reporting positive growth in sales and turboprops have remained a major component of regional air carriers flying in the world, the United States has not followed world trends. Turboprop fleets and sales are down significantly since the mid-1990s. As of mid-2017, there are no signs indicating that trend is reversing. U.S. air carriers do not have any turboprop airplanes on order; to date, only 300 are currently flying in the country, with an average age of 21 years. Meanwhile, in 2013, total orders for turboprop aircraft only reached 164 aircraft between ATR and Bombardier (a number consistent with industry forecasts for 2014-2033), causing Brazilian manufacturer Embraer to forego re-entry into the turboprop market. However, reports at the 2017 Paris Air Show suggest that the company’s stance might change, with a 90-seat turboprop potentially in the works.
Recently, European airframer ATR tried to pitch its turboprop fleets to North America as a low-cost option for shorter routes, potentially replacing regional jets as well as existing turboprops. Currently, their only U.S. customer is FedEx; the last major order by a U.S. firm was placed Mesaba Aviation, a Minneapolis company, in 1996. However, lowered costs of fuel could lead to an eventual resurgence of turboprop craft. Average variable costs per hour, including fuel, tend to run slightly lower for turboprops compared to jets, although so do their carrying capacities and ranges.
Existing turboprop fleets worldwide have seen a growing number of safety concerns. In China, the Modern Ark 60 (MA60) has had a poor safety record, with frequent brake, steering, and landing gear failures. Over 11% of such vehicles have been damaged beyond repair since their inception, clouding China’s aviation future. Furthermore, the production company allegedly failed to disclose certain safety information to buyers, despite legal obligations. Meanwhile, in Australia, an incident in 2014 involving a pitch disconnect in an ATR72 has led to greater scrutiny of turboprop manufacturers Virgin and Toll, including monthly reports to the Civil Aviation Safety Agency (CASA). These mechanical issues suggest closer examinations of turboprop planes on the whole.
- NTSB noted lack of regulatory requirements or regulatory oversight as a probable cause or contributing factor to several aircraft accidents operated by part 135 commuter air carriers:
- Northwest Airlink 5719 (Express II Airlines) – December 1, 1993 (CFIT)
- United Express 6291 (Atlantic Coast Airlines) – January 7, 1994 (LOC-I)
- American Eagle 3379 (Flagship Airlines) – December 13, 1994 (LOC-I)
Loss of expertise and know-how, know-where
The FAA published a final rule requiring most part 135 commuter operators offering scheduled service in turbojets or turboprops with greater than nine seats to operate under 14 CFR part 121.
Average age of the U.S. turboprop fleet is increasing, leading to greater risk of maintenance and safety hazards.