Tag: turboprops

Is the 50-seater done?

When the CRJ came on the scene in 1993, it revolutionized air travel. With a 50-seat jet, airlines were able to overcome the high per-seat-mile operating costs and make money because of the appeal of being in a jet versus the previous turboprops that had dominated the market for so long.

Derisively referred to as “puddle jumpers,” turboprops had a limited range of around 400 nautical miles. To stretch much beyond that was to risk schedule disruptions becasue of alternate fuel requirements, as well as reduced loads. The RJ changed that. While payloads could still be limited in some cases, the standard range of operations increased dramatically, while offering passengers a faster, more comfortable ride.

Recently, the FAA increased the standard weights of passengers from 170 pounds (this includes a bag) in the summer/175 in the winter to 190 and 195 pounds respectively. There has also been an increase in the allowed weight for personal items.

What does all of this mean? In short, it could be the death knell for the current fleet of 50-seat RJs. The increase in weight for passengers is going to take a bite out of the allowable payload. In a recent email from my local union folks, the payloads on 50-seaters are said to max out at 48 passengers. Some may even be limited to 47. For the airlines, this is going to be a problem. The RJs were already relatively expensive to operate, and this will only make it worse. The other major challenge is going to be finding a way to continue to serve certain markets that cannot sustain service from larger jets.

There have been efforts to bring the larger turboprops back, most notably the Dash-8 Q400 from Bombardier. However, it hasn’t worked on the scale needed. The passengers have voted with their wallets and opted for competitors that had a jet, which they view as safer and more reliable, not to mention more comfortable. There is also a perception that turboprop pilots are not as well-trained or as experienced.

The 50-seaters are definitely long in the tooth, and larger numbers have been parked or turned into beer cans. Unfortunately, that trend is likely to continue. There is currently no movement afoot to introduce a new model to the North American market, which means that the 70-90-seaters will be the airplanes filling that niche. Airlines are currently trying out a 50-seat variant of the CRJ-700 by taking out some seats and adding first-class service and different seating classes in coach. Only time will tell if this is going to be a long-term answer.

It’s possible that there won’t be another 50-seat jet introduced, and that some communities will indeed see a decrease in, or even a loss of, service. If so, that would be a shame. It will also be a shame to see a workhorse airplane no longer in the skies.-–Chip Wright 

Loss of the turboprop

Recently, Hinson Airways, a small regional airline on the East Coast, flew its last flight in the venerable Bombardier Dash 8. The Dash, as it was commonly called, was once a popular turboprop, a 30-seat puddle jumper that connected small cities to airline hubs, often by making stops in other small cities on the way. Such flying now represents a largely bygone age.

While Horizon Air still operates the Dash 8 Q400, a larger version of the airplane, the company is the only regional still flying turboprops for its major airline partners. Everyone else has committed to some form of the regional jet.

This is not an insignificant development for pilots who want to fly for the airlines. Back in the day, turboprops were the backbone of regional flying, with Saabs, Brasilias, ATRs, Jetstreams, and Beech 1900s—the airplane everyone loved to hate—providing a large chunk of the lift from Smallville, USA, to the hubs to connect to jets (or, God forbid, another turboprop).

These airplanes were often a major stepping stone for pilots who had not yet been exposed to flying a turbine aircraft. The training could be challenging, especially since a lot of it took place in the airplane itself, usually in the middle of the night. In time, more sophisticated simulators came into play (the simulator for the EMB-120 Brasilia was said to have cost more than the airplane, but the gain in safety more than offset the financial cost).

Nowadays, pilots from the piston world have even fewer opportunities to get entry-level jobs flying turboprops for Part 135 operations or smaller commuter airlines, as they were called. That means the big leap is no longer from a piston twin such as a Piper Seneca or Aztec to a Beech 1900. It’s from a Piper Seminole to a jet. The transition is eased by the fact that so much of general aviation is using avionics that equal or exceed what RJs have. However, it’s a large leap from a piston twin that might fly 140 to 160 knots to a jet that can have a true airspeed of more than 400 knots.

Speed is probably the biggest challenge associated with moving into jets. Everything happens much faster, except for slowing down, which takes forever. As a result, speed and energy management are real challenges, and training and practice are critical. Unfortunately, the sterile environment of the simulator does only so much to prepare a pilot for all the various curve balls that the real world can throw your way. Tight turns to final, weather deviations, high speed aborted takeoffs, and even ATC mistakes will all be in a day’s work.

It’s both a shame and a blessing that turboprops are gone. They provided great experience, a great stepping stone, and in the airplanes with no autopilot, they made for phenomenal instrument pilots with well-developed decision-making skills. The work was exhausting (six to eight legs a day in airplanes with minimal air conditioning, followed by short nights), often in the worst of the weather, and words of thanks were relatively rare, but quality of the pilot produced was first rate. The blessing, of course, is that jets are much faster, more comfortable and, with the proper training, safer.—Chip Wright