It’s Maytime (for turboprops)


Spring is springing (in the northern hemisphere, at least). It’s nearly Maytime – and that means more growth and opportunity for turboprop business aircraft. Not least the Pilatus PC-12, which will see its 2,000th delivery next month. (Other turboprops are available, as mentioned below).

Let’s start with the big picture for this resilient range of aircraft, courtesy of aviation consultancy WINGX. Overall, it’s an encouraging perspective. Global turboprop activity has seen more stable growth compared with business jets during the past four years,” Richard Koe, MD, WINGX tells CJI.

“Flights are 7% ahead of 2019, and still edging ahead of 2022, the record year. Contrast business jets, which are seeing a decline in demand from last year.” But that’s a global view and the growth outside North America and Europe is partly down to wider ADS-B (Automatic Dependent Surveillance–Broadcast) capture, he adds.

The six busiest airport pairs in the world are inter island flights in Hawaii and the Caribbean where, on these short island hop flights, turboprops likely suffer little time penalty compared with very-light and light jets, says Koe. “Also, many of these flights are effectively scheduled and may have replaced uneconomical scheduled routes,” he adds. That fits with the synoptic view that 91% of global turboprop flights in Q1 were domestic sectors, with 77% of flights under 90 minutes in length. The Pilatus PC-12 is the busiest turboprop in terms of departures, according to WINGX.

Which brings us to a significant milestone for turboprops. “Pilatus has sold over 2,000 PC-12s since programme inception and will celebrate a major milestone in delivering the 2,000th PC-12 in May 2023,” a company spokesman tells CJI. The company attributes its popularity partly to the continued evolution of the range. Sometimes known as the Swiss Army knife of the air, the Pilatus PC-12 range became a little sharper in 2019 with the launch of the latest version, called NGX. This incorporates an improved engine, smarter avionics and a redesigned cabin with larger windows, making this third generation of the PC-12 airframe the most advanced single-engine turboprop, claims the manufacturer.

“Building on the experience gathered from the worldwide PC-12 fleet aircraft with more than 10m flight hours plus Pilatus industry-leading support, the new PC-12 NGX brings the latest technology to the turboprop market.” Strong residual value is another factor unpinning its popularity.

Pilatus also sees a Covid factor at play, which has helped to drive the PC-12’s popularity and, presumably, benefited other turboprop aircraft too. Covid supported the demand,” says the spokesman. “During Covid, when airline services broke down or you had to wear a mask, passengers switched to private aviation. Passengers who may have previously flown first or business class realised the benefit of flying privately. And if you fly Pilatus, we bring our customers closer to their final destination, saving precious time in the process.”

But, of course, the turboprop market is highly contested. For example, the King Air range, on which the Wheels Up fleet was founded. Then, there’s the imaginatively configured Piaggio and French manufacturer Daher’s TBM 940 and TBM 960 and the Piper M600 to name but three. (These last three aircraft could be good choices if you are planning on flying with a frail-looking pilot, as both are fitted with Garmin Autoland. This returns you to a safe landing without the need for pilot intervention).

A Daher spokesman told CJI: “From its inception, the TBM team has made a constant commitment to regularly improve and enhance the aircraft family – with safety and efficiency as the priorities. Under Daher’s leadership, we continue to integrate state-of-the-art systems – as soon as they are considered as mature – and which offer value-added benefits for safety, situational awareness and efficiency, as well as for passenger comfort.”

Examples cited include: the EPECS (Engine and Propeller Electronic Control System) with the new PT6E-66XT engine on the TBM 960, as well as the HomeSafe emergency Autoland system. Here’s Nicolas Chabbert, senior vice president, Daher’s Aircraft Division talking about HomeSafe: “The introduction of HomeSafe on the TBM is a game-changing step that expands flight safety from pilots to the passengers themselves, and it comes at a time when the value of life is more important than ever.”             

Turboprop aircraft offer important operational and economic advantages over light and personal jets, says Daher. “On medium-haul routes and typical trans-continental flights, turboprop aircraft combine the cruise speed and trip times of a light jet with the economic direct operating costs, range and moderate environmental signature of a turboprop,” the spokesman told CJI.

Lower operating costs is another factor, he says. “The better economics of a turboprop is a factor that has increased the attractiveness of the TBM and Kodiak in today’s environment – both for owners who use the TBM and Kodiak for pleasure and personal travel and for owners/operators who fly their aircraft for business purposes.

“Another major plus is the turboprop aircraft’s ability to land at airports with runway lengths and operational restrictions that prohibit the use of jets. This opens up many destinations to the TBM and Kodiak, along with the noise-sensitive airports, where jets cause problems with local populations.”  

So, with regional airline schedules still recovering from Covid and the renewed appetite for travel for business and leisure – at least over relatively short distances – turboprops’ future in the sun (and plenty of other places) seems assured.

Above: Daher’s TBM 940 is equipped with the HomeSafe emergency Autoland system. 

Top: Pilatus predicts the PC-12 will see its 2,000th delivery next month. Pictured is a PC-12 NGX.