The turboprop aircraft is making a comeback, with sales to one of the only remaining manufacturers quadrupling in 2007 and a continued upsurge expected. With high oil prices, concerns over climate change, and uncertain economic conditions keeping airlines nervous, the return cannot come a moment too soon. As our very own Lloyd Alter testified after his bike/turboprop trip from Toronto to NYC, turboprops are among the most efficient aircraft in the skies, using only 64% of fuel per seat compared to the average jet (we've gone into more detail about turboprops in our overview of Porter Airlines and we've watched how a UK low-cost carrier has been producing eco-labels to back up their efficiency claims). So it's no surprise our ears pricked up when we heard a report on NPR's Marketplace about the renewed interest in turboprops among major carriers.
Continental Adopting Turboprops
Continental Airlines is putting 74-seat turboprops on various short-haul routes out of Newark this year, and claims that per seat the airline is probably saving 30% as a result of fuel efficiency and higher seating capacity. And while other airlines say they are not currently considering turboprops, orders of the Bombardier Q400 model shot up from 24 in 2006 to nearly 4 times that number in 2007. Micheline Maynard, aviation correspondent for the New York Times, tells NPR that with high fuel prices continuing to effect profits, passengers should not be surprised to find themselves strapped into a turboprop in the near future:
"Jet fuel prices now are just under $4 a gallon and that's up almost double from what it was a year ago and if these prices stay high, I think you'll see a lot more airlines gravitate to orders for these new turboprop planes. With the airlines pulling down service to cities, eliminating cities altogether, if this is the only way they can get there, I think they'll be satisfied to fly them."
Potential for Biofuel Planes?
Not mentioned in the report is the prospect that while Branson and others continue to explore biofuels for jets, we understand that turboprops can run on biodiesel relatively easily (probably blended to account for temperature issues). Of course with the current crisis over the cost of food, this may only make sense if recent moves to make algae biodiesel commercially viable pay off.
Alternatives to Flying
It probably goes without saying that, turboprop or not, flying is not likely to beat the efficiencies of electrified high-speed rail or intercity bus transit any time soon. With Eurostar, the UK to mainland Europe train operator, claiming carbon emissions 10-times lower than equivalent airline routes (and that was before they went carbon neutral), it's no wonder that airlines are losing passengers to rail where real competition exists. That competition can only help drive a revival in turboprops among airlines as one of the means to reduce their impact and cut their costs.
More on TreeHugger about Turboprop Aircraft
Perhaps Flying Turboprop Isn't Dying
Turboprops Get Ecolabel
More on Aviation and Biofuels
Virgin Experimenting with Biofuel for Jets
Biodiesel for Aircraft Q&A;
Air New Zealand Biofuelling Through the High Skies
More on Airlines and High Oil Prices
British Airway's Profits Squeezed by Eurostar and High Oil Prices
Are Eco-Loonies Damaging Ryanair's Sales After All?
Airlines Cut Flights and Planes to Save Fuel
Airlines Save Gas By Slowing Down, Just Like Drivers
More on Alternatives to Flying
Seat 61: Get There Without Flying
Eurostar to Cut Emissions 25% and Offset the Rest
Spain's New High-Speed Rail Challenging the Airlines
High-Speed Rail Comes to the Americas
CA High-Speed Rail Initiative: "If We Don't Pass This, We Will Never Have High-Speed Trains in the US"
::NPR Marketplace::via site visit::