In 2002, Comair, Delta's regional subsidiary, could proudly claim to be the first all-jet commuter airline. Its 50-seat Embraer and Bombardier regional planes freed us from turboprops, like the Short 360 and Saab 340--flying migraine machines with the comfort of the backseat of a VW Beetle. But in 2012, Comair announced its demise because those jets are too costly to operate profitably. And now a new generation of turboprops is making a comeback--and offering a vastly improved travel experience.
Avions de Transport Regional (ATR), a European maker of commuter turboprops, has enough orders for its 50-to-74-seat ATR 72-600 to keep its assembly lines cranking for three years. At Canada's Bombardier, orders are picking up again for its 70-to-80-seat Q400 turbo. The buyers are after the same advantage. Turbos are ideal for short-cycle routes--flights of 300 miles (480 km) or less--and are as much as 50% more fuel-efficient and about as fast as regional jets over that distance. "It's the natural hedge on fuel when you apply the right airplane technology to do the right missions," says Mark Neely, ATR's head of sales in North America. The planes are getting more comfortable too: they're sleeker, quieter and more spacious than their predecessors. (See sidebar.)
There is politics in play as well. For years, major airlines subcontracted short- and medium-haul flights to their commuter carriers to avoid paying their own pilots' higher wages, but so-called scope clauses limited commuter carriers to 50-seat stalwarts like Bombardier's CRJ and Embraer's ERJ. Now that carrier economies have changed (see: the American Airlines bankruptcy and a general push to fly bigger planes at fuller capacities), industry consultancies like AirInsight expect a shift to larger turbos within five years.
Meanwhile, aircraft makers estimate that demand for turboprops will reach 2,500 to 3,000 planes over the next 20 years as airlines in developing countries expand their networks and those in Western nations restructure money-losing fleets and routes. Already, turbos have claimed 85% of the orders in the 50-to-90-seat segment. (That's good news for engine maker Pratt & Whitney.) The ATR 72-600, for example, is turning up in the U.S. (via GECAS, GE's leasing arm), Australia (for Virgin Australia) and all over Asia. And the Q400 just claimed a big order from Canada's WestJet. The turboprop forecast is so encouraging that ATR and Bombardier are considering new turbos that could carry 90 to 110 passengers--about the capacity of a Lockheed Super Constellation, the 1950s-era turboprop that made flying TWA glamorous. The new turbos won't restore the glamour. But with their quieter engines and roomier cabins, they will spare you the aspirin.