Monday, June 30, 2008

Forward to the past: more propellers in our future?

Could prop planes replace the jets that dominate Hawai'i's short-haul interisland market?

Increasingly, at least outside Hawai'i, market pressure is pushing that way.

(Image: Cruising speed of various aircraft—propellor planes appear at the lower end of the scale, although new turboprops can fly at near-jet speeds. Source: IPCC Special Report on Aviation.)

Trends appearing on short-haul Mainland routes see to be moving away from small jets and toward the use of propellor craft—mainly turboprops.

The key reason: fuel.

Or more precisely, the high cost of fuel.

Jets are generally more fuel efficient than props on long hauls—they get their efficiency flying high and long. They lose it if they spent too big a proportion of their time on fuel-costly takeoffs.

The regional airline Horizon in the Northwest, brought jets into its fleet, and now is reconsidering.

It says it will switch to Bombardier Q-400 turboprops. (A turboprop is essentially a jet-like turbine engine that turns a propeller.)

A Horizon official said the turboprop is just way better on fuel economy—as much as 30 percent—on shorter hauls. With fuel near half the cost of flying today, that 30 percent looks better and better.

MSNBC, in a propeller story in April, said “The soaring cost of fuel is rapidly reshaping the landscape for regional flights at many airlines, leading to interest in a new generation of turboprop planes.”

It's not just a U.S. phenomenon. In Germany, discount airline Air Berlin has opted for turboprops on shorter flights. SAS Scandinavian Air has bought a clutch of them as well.

One of the beneficiaries of the trend is Bombardier, the Canadian company that makes the Q-400.

Bombardier is already an active player in the Hawaiian inter-island market.

It makes the planes Island Air flies. These 37-seat turboprops are Dash 8 100 and 200 models, also known as deHavilland 100 and 200s. The newest version of the Dash planes are called the Q (for quiet) series. The Q400 is one of these, with passenger capacities from 70 to 78 and a top speed of about 425 miles an hour.

Bombardier also makes the Canadair regional jets flown by go! Airlines in the Islands.

Bombardier reports strong sales for its turboprop planes.

When Hawai'i interisland airlines switched from props to jets close to half a century ago, they created a travel scenario that was marginally faster, flew higher and quieter and was considerably sexier, but used a lot more fuel per seat flown.

In those days, fuel was cheap and there were no concerns about carbon dioxide in the environment.

Since that time, jets have achieved stunning improvements in fuel efficiency—from 55 to 70 percent, depending on which of the early jets is used as a baseline.

Most of that improvement—nearly three-quarters of it--has come from more efficient engines—producing more thrust with less kerosene. A significant improvement also comes from more aerodynamic shapes of aircraft.

But with all that improvement, big jets have only recently surpassed the fuel efficiency of the piston engine propellor airplanes of the 1950s.

And most of that gain has been on longer-haul flights. It still takes a lot of fuel to get a jet plane off the ground and up to cruising altitude, and that's a significant part of most short inter-island hops.

And why would airlines go back from jets to props? Because there could come a point at which they'll have to, in order to keep people flying.

“Every time the price of fuel increases the cost of a ticket by a dollar, a percentage of travelers opt not to fly,” said Richard Crum, president of the Association of Corporate Travel Executives.

For more on air travel and fuel prices see:

© 2008 Jan W. TenBruggencate