Pint-Size Jets Target Market Gap Created by Bombardier Ambitions

Thirty-seat jets that disappeared from aviation a decade ago as Bombardier Inc. led a move into short-hop planes the size of a small airliner are set to fly again as emerging economies clamor for lower-capacity options.

The Dornier 328, last built in 2004, will resume assembly at a factory near Ankara within three years after the Turkish government signed an order for 50 aircraft, according to Sierra Nevada Corp., which owns rights to the model.

While the plane, rebranded the TR-Jet, will initially see service in eastern Turkey, where a smaller aircraft suits the market, it could prove attractive for airlines needing a model in the 30-to-50-seat range as existing examples approach retirement, the European Regions Airline Association said.

“There’s a big gap in the jet market and there’s nothing to fill it,” ERA Director General Simon McNamara said in an interview. “There won’t be the same numbers as for a Boeing 737 or Airbus A320, but it’s stable demand.”

There are about 5,000 small regional aircraft still flying, according to Dave Jackson, managing director of the 328 program at Sierra Nevada, who said the company is seeking about 500 orders split between the baseline 32-seat 328 and a possible all-new 50-60 seat variant dubbed the 628.

Indigenous Plane

“If you’re going to operate flights of one or two hours between smaller population centers -- what we call thinner routes -- then you have to have an aircraft like this,” Jackson said in an interview at the Paris Air Show. “People are prepared to pay more to fly because very often there’s no alternative over land, so the market’s there. It’s really a case of the airframers not providing the planes.”

In Turkey, the TR-Jet would advance ambitions to establish home-grown aircraft manufacturing as the economy grows, with the 628 envisaged as an entirely indigenous program, he said.

The Turkish government initially targeted the small-airliner sector, before concluding that it was too crowded with Montreal-based Bombardier’s CSeries, the Russian Superjet, Mitsubishi Regional Jet and new aircraft from China, as well as the smallest Boeing and Airbus models, Jackson said.

Changed Industry

For a 328-sized aircraft there’s demand from emerging markets including the former Soviet Union and Africa, as well as from established airlines such as those around the periphery of Europe with routes that can’t sustain 70 or 90 seat planes.

The new aircraft would also have a role in developing new routes before bigger ones were deployed, Jackson said, whose plans include developing a 328 turboprop which would slot into the market beneath the ATR 42, the only surviving regional model below the 70-seat category. Both planes would use engines from Pratt & Whitney, with which Jackson met at the Paris show.

ERA recently convened a work group to address the scarcity of smaller planes after carriers including Norway’s Wideroe Flyveselskap AS highlighted the issue as a concern. McNamara said the regional aircraft market has changed more than any other since the 1980s, when small propeller-driven planes accounted for 90 percent of the fleet.

The upheaval began with Bombardier’s jet-powered CRJs, developed from the Challenger business model in 1992. While the first had 50 seats, rising oil prices spurred a capacity jump that led to the 70-passenger CRJ700 in 1999. The company’s turboprops also grew, culminating in the Dash 8 400, also with 70 seats and introduced the same year. Ninety-seaters followed.

Workhorses

Other manufacturers replicated the trend, led by Brazil’s Embraer SA, and smaller models gradually disappeared. The 328, built near Munich, went last, with German-U.S. parent Fairchild Dornier collapsing in 2002 and AvCraft., which had taken over the production, folding in 2004.

In the 30 to 50 seat bracket, most surviving planes have an average age above two decades, according to Sierra Nevada. Bombardier Dash 8 100s and Saab 340s are typically 21 years old, while Embraer 120 Brasilias, Fokker 27s and BAE Systems Plc Jetstream 31s and 41s are closer to 25 and Ukrainian Antonov An-24s are 35. Even the 328 fleet averages 16 years old.

ATR, an Airbus Group SE and Finmeccanica SpA joint venture that has about 1,000 aircraft in service, said it, too, sees evidence of demand swinging back toward smaller aircraft as surviving models reach their limits.

While 90 percent of orders have been for its 72-seat model in recent years, sales of the ATR-42 have picked up in the past six months and could soon account for 20 percent of sales, CEO Patrick de Castelbajac said in an interview at the Paris expo.

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