Global turboprop capacity up 22% since 2009; Vancouver is ‘Top of the Props’ as Canada overtakes US to become top market
Turboprops are often employed as less glamorous regional workhorses and can offer a more fuel efficient solution for airlines than regional jets, particularly on short sectors. Turboprops can also operate from shorter and more restricted runways than jet aircraft, and in some cases are the only solution for serving remote communities. In November 2018, Bombardier agreed to sell its Dash 8 turboprop programme, including the in-production Q400 series, to Longview Aviation Capital Corp. The fact that one of the world’s two major long-term commercial turboprop manufacturers had chosen to divest this segment of its business may have suggested to some that the outlook for future turboprop demand looked bleak. However, far from entering a period of decline, the capacity operated by turboprops is continuing to grow.
The following analysis takes account of all aircraft types classified as turboprops by OAG and is based on direct scheduled flights only. Unsurprisingly, the Dash 8 and ATR 42/72 families are the dominant types in service, accounting for 87% of all available turboprop capacity in 2018. The airlines discussed here are the published carriers and some or all of their turboprop services may be performed by regional subsidiary or partner operators.
Five straight years of growth
There were 201.42 million two-way seats available on turboprop-operated flights in 2009, and this had increased to 215.47 million by 2011. This was followed by two consecutive year-on-year declines in capacity, with the number of available seats dropping by 3.6% from 2011 to 2013. Since then, the number of seats available on turboprop services has increased consistently, with 2018 representing the fifth consecutive year of growth. From 2013 to 2018, turboprop capacity grew by 18%, reaching 245.41 million two-way seats last year. The average annual capacity increase over this period was 3.4%.
Turboprops come into their own on shorter sectors. OAG data for 2018 suggests that 87% of scheduled turboprops services were on sectors of 300 nautical miles (300nm = 556 kilometres) or less and that 97% were operated on routes of 500nm (926 kilometres) or less. The average capacity on scheduled turboprop flights has increased from 44 seats in 2009 to 51 seats in 2018, indicating that airlines are continuing to gravitate away from smaller, ageing turboprop types towards larger 70+ seat ATR 72s and Q400s.
Air Canada is biggest turboprop user
According to OAG Schedules Analyser data, 366 published carriers offered seats on scheduled turboprop services in 2018, although some of these were very limited in scope. The largest provider of turboprop capacity was Air Canada, with 12.69 million seats available across its network in 2018. The Canadian flag carrier subsequently accounted for 5.2% of all global turboprop capacity alone last year. All of Air Canada’s turboprop services are operated by regional partner carriers under the Air Canada Express brand, with Jazz providing 95% of its turboprop seats in 2018. The second largest carrier for turboprop capacity is Flybe, which had franchise arrangements with other operators including Blue Islands, Eastern Airways and Stobart Air last year. In addition to Flybe’s own operations, these three carriers all operated turboprop services under the Flybe brand, accounting for about 15% of its total of 10.33 million two-way turboprop seats.
Three of the 10 biggest turboprop operators are Canadian, with WestJet (fourth largest) and Porter Airlines (10th) joining Air Canada at the top table. Five of the top 15 turboprop operators are based in the Americas, with six in Asia or the Asia Pacific region, three in Europe and one in Africa.
Two of the top 15 carriers didn’t have any turboprop operations in 2009. SpiceJet and WestJet only began turboprop services in 2011 and 2013 respectively, but are now the ninth and fourth largest operators of such aircraft. In 2018, 10 of the top 15 airlines increased their number of scheduled seats on turboprop services (highlighted in green). The biggest increases came from WestJet (25% growth), Wings Air (22%) and SpiceJet (21%). Five of the top-ranked airlines cut the capacity provided on turboprops last year (highlighted in red). The biggest decline came from Alaska Airlines, which cut capacity by 16%, largely a result of a reduction in turboprop seats offered on flights operated by its Horizon Air subsidiary. The most marginal cutback came from Air Canada, which reduced its capacity by 0.6% compared to 2017.
Canada in a league of its own
Schedules show that 46 different country markets saw one million seats or more departing on turboprop services last year. This takes account of all available seats departing from a country’s airports, so domestic links are essentially counted in both directions. Canada was by far the largest market for scheduled turboprop services last year with more than twice as many seats as the next largest market, Indonesia. Nine of the top 15 country markets are located in Asia or the Asia Pacific, with a further three in the Americas and three in Europe. No African countries feature among the top 15 markets for turboprop seats, with South Africa, finishing highest in 27th position.
Some of the most notable changing trends in turboprop utilisation over the past 10 years have come at the country market level. In 2009, the US was biggest market by a considerable margin, with 38.87 million seats available on turboprop flights, which represented 19% of the global total. From 2009 to 2018, the capacity on offer on turboprop services from US airports fell by 66%. This was largely due to the US major airlines moving away from turboprop-operated regional feeder services, performed by affiliate carriers or subsidiaries. In 2009, US Airways, Continental Airlines, United Airlines and the combined Northwest/Delta Air Lines all offered three million two-way seats or more on flights operated by turboprops. Now, in the post-merger climate, none of the USB3 carriers has any significant turboprop operations remaining, with American Airlines phasing out its last turboprop services last July. There are some indications that turboprops could see a revival with independent regional airlines in the US, with ATR announcing in 2018 that it had signed a deal with Silver Airways for 16 ATR 42-600s and four ATR 72-600s to replace that carrier’s fleet of smaller Saab 340s.
As US demand for turboprops has declined, across the border in Canada momentum has continued to build. There were 15.07 million seats on turboprop services in Canada in 2009 and by 2018 this had more doubled to 30.48 million. Canada overtook its North American neighbour to become the largest market for turboprop services in 2016. There has also been notable growth in turboprop capacity in the Asia Pacific region with Indonesia, Japan and Myanmar all entering the top 15 markets for turboprop seats since 2009. Indonesia, only witnessed 1.06 million departing seats on turboprop flights in 2009 but is now the second biggest market in the world with 14.35 million turboprop seats available last year. Along with the US, the UK was the only other top-ranked market to see a decline in turboprop capacity since 2009.
Eight of the top 15 country markets saw an increase in departing turboprop capacity in 2018 versus 2017 (highlighted in green), with the biggest boosts coming in Taiwan (41% increase) the Philippines (28%) and Indonesia (24%). Seven other markets witnessed cuts in turboprop seats (highlighted in red) with the biggest decline coming in the US, where capacity was down 31%.
Vancouver and Toronto Pearson are top for props
OAG data indicates that 2,875 airports welcomed at least one scheduled turboprop flight in 2018. Since Canada is the biggest market for turboprop services it is perhaps unsurprising that it was home to five of the six largest airports for departing turboprop seats last year. Vancouver and Toronto Pearson are top airports for available capacity and are joined by Calgary, Toronto City and Montreal in the top six. The remainder of the top 15 includes two airports in each of the US and Spain (Canary Islands) and one each in Australia, Greece, India, Malaysia, New Zealand and the Philippines. The only top five turboprop market without an airport in the top 15 is the UK. The biggest UK airports for turboprop capacity are Manchester and Southampton which had 1.30 million and 1.15 million departing seats respectively last year.
Most of the top-ranked turboprop airports witnessed and increase in their non-jet capacity in 2018. The biggest growth in turboprop seats among the top 15 came at Cebu, the host airport for Routes Asia 2019 (33% increase) and Hyderabad (31%). Four of the top 15 airports saw cuts in the available seats operated by turboprops (highlighted in red). The biggest decline came at Kuala Lumpur Subang, where turboprop capacity was down by 26% compared to 2017 levels.
Leading links for prop services
The largest route in the world for scheduled turboprop capacity is the connection between Toronto City and Montreal, with more than 700,000 one-way seats available on this sector last year. OAG data shows that Air Canada and Porter will offer a combined 175 departures on this sector during the week commencing 29 January, with all of these operated by Q400s. Domestic links within Canada and between the Spanish Canary Islands made up all of the top five turboprop airport pairs in 2018.