IN LATE May of this year, at the Regional Airline Association, engine manufacturer General Electric revealed that parties other than ATR and Bombardier were pursuing a 90-seat turboprop. Not surprisingly, it was widely accepted that Embraer would be spearheading such a project. Turboprop production at the Brazilian manufacturer has been fairly idle for over a decade but the recent success of the E-jet series would have given them suitable capital to support this concept. Many eyebrows were raised when Embraer had admitted they were not significantly involved in any turboprop projects, and even more surprise ensued when it was revealed that Saab AB were actually the associated company.
Saab’s previous foray in the commercial sector was bittersweet. The 35 seat 340 enjoyed encouraging success in the ’80s, with interest from the US market boosting the orderbook to healthy figures. The stretched 2000, seating 50 passengers, was launched in 1988, just before the market for 50 seat regional jets was realised. By the time it was in service, few carriers cared for its economic advantages and lowered operating costs when compared to its jet competitors. It ended production after just 63 were built.
Bad timing may have dug their grave in early ’90s, but Saab’s renewed interest in turboprops is no coincidence. Rising fuel prices have forced regional operators to face reality, 50 seat regional jets such as the CRJ200 and ERJ145 are being hastily phased out for larger models, having been deemed uneconomic for almost 10 years now. Larger 70 seat jet aircraft face a similar fate. Pre-empting the replacement needs of airlines operating the CRJ700 and E170 would give Saab the ideal chance to position themselves as an established company that can provide a superior aircraft.
Bombardier received significant interest for the Q400x from Flybe, who operate a large fleet of Q400s. The stretch allegedly took the aircraft’s seating to 88 but sacrificed range and included the removal of the only lavatory. Flybe eventually opted for the more size appropriate E175, but not before securing a financial deal with Embraer that made up for any economic shortfalls of operating jet aircraft. ATR have received similar attention from carriers such as Firefly for a 90 seat turboprop.
Anticipation in the manufacturing segment of aviation has been paramount to the success of many companies, and lack of it has seen their downfall. Demand for the Saab 340 and 2000 has outlived even its once-preferred counterpart, the 50 seat regional jet. That alone is strong evidence that news of Saab re-entering the commercial sector would be well received.