Bombardier, manufacturer of the world’s largest western civilian turboprop aircraft, the DHC-8 Q400, today launched the 90 seat variant at the Singapore Airshow, making the largest airplane even larger in terms of capacity, without so much as stretching the airplane by an inch.
The Q400 usually seats 78 passengers in a single class with a 30 inch seat pitch. In 2013, Bombardier had launched the 86 seat variant of the Q400, with Nok Air of Thailand as the launch customer. The 86 seat variant offered a seat pitch of 29 inches, by shifting the aft galley into the aft cargo hold, thereby reducing aft cargo space by 20%, and doing away with the forward baggage hold.
This made the case for Bombardier to announce a 90 seat variant with a seat pitch of 28 inches. To add an extra 4 seats, or one row, Bombardier is, according to Flightglobal, will push back the rear bulkhead and reconfigure the front right hand door. To make the airplane more attractive, Bombardier is increasing the 90 seat variant’s payload by 900 kg, and proposing an escalation of the A-Check and C-Check intervals from 600/6,000 to 800/8,000 flight hours. The 90 seat variant is expected to enter service as early as 2018, provided Bombardier secures a launch customer for the type.
Why at the Singapore Airshow?
There are four reasons why ATR and Bombardier are focusing on South East Asia. First, the geography and infrastructure of countries is such that connectivity within the country is best offered by short haul air transport. Second, the region is comprised of developing nations, where the end customers, the passengers, are very price sensitive. Third, demand for travel is rising. Fourth, the average height of the population is much shorter than the western world.
Turboprops are excellent for short and thin routes. Average ticket prices can only be lowered if the cost per seat falls further. The same airplane packing more seats lowers the cost per seat per flight, which allows airlines to compete better using pricing as a tool. The 90 seat variant may reduce the cost per seat by as much as 11-13% when compared to the 78 seat variant, and by 3-4% when compared to the 86 seat variant. Packing more seats reduces the seat pitch, which would have been a repulsive product to sell to passengers in the western world. But in South East Asia, the lower average height makes a 28 inch seat pitch comfortable. South East Asians are, on average, one of the shortest in the world.
Bombardier had launched the 86 seat variant at Dubai, but the launch airline is from a South East Asian country. Knowing that any demand for ultra high density aircraft variants will only come from Asia, Singapore Airshow 2016, Asia’s biggest commercial aerospace and defense exhibition, had to be the platform of choice.
ATR received EASA certification for its high-density cabin layout which fits 78 seats, using the existing airframe which was until recently certified for a maximum of 74 seats. Cebu Pacific, the leading Phillipines low cost airline, is the launch customer of this new configuration of the ATR 72-600. The airline had formally announced an order for 16 ATR72-600s during the Paris Air Show with options to acquire an additional 10 ATR 72-600, worth US$673 million at list prices.
Cebu Pacific will receive its 78 seat aircraft in August 2016. According to ATR, ” The additional seats are very valuable for airlines operating in the regions where traffic grows rapidly and the demand is highly sensitive to fare”. According to Thierry Casale, ATR Senior Vice President Programmes, “The demand comes from airlines, especially in the Southeast Asian market, requesting to further optimize the cabin space and to increase the number of available seats for regional flights".
In August 2014, Thailand’s Nok Air took delivery of an 86 seat Bombardier Q400, becoming the launch operator for the extra capacity seating configuration. Bombardier was able to squeeze in 86 seats at 29 inches seat pitch by shifting the aft galley into the aft cargo hold, thereby reducing aft cargo space by 20%. Forward baggage hold is done away with.
ATR can pack in 78 seats by reducing seat pitch to 28 inches, downsizing and moving the aft galley into the rear cargo compartment, and by placing two rear facing seats in the first row, which take up a part of the otherwise forward right cargo hold, thereby reducing forward cargo space. ATR’s target is an 80 seat ATR 72, which will be possible only with four, rear facing seats on the first row. Such seats do not recline.
The configuration is built with the current SFE Geven Classic seats, requiring no special or different seats.
Interestingly, demand for these configurations have come exclusively from South East Asian low cost operators. According to a study that the ‘Association of Southeast Asian Nations DNA’ conducted, Filipinos are the second shortest race in the South East Asian region, with males measuring 5 feet 3.7 inches. Thailand’s males are the second tallest, at an average 5 feet 6.9 inches. This makes Filipino men 4.8% shorter than the average Thai man, while a 28 inch seat pitch is only 3.4% lesser than a 29 inch seat pitch. Assuming similar thin seats on both aircraft, Filipinos, due to their height, may feel as comfortable, if not more comfortable, than Thai men flying in the high density Q400.
Indonesian males are the shortest in the South East Asian region, at 5 feet 2 inches, which makes the 78 seat variant well suited for the Indonesian market. If airlines are scientifically driven, airlines in other countries may not opt for the 78 seat variant, unless the business model decides otherwise.
The 78 seat ATR 72 seats 4 more than the until-recent maximum of 74. Assuming a 100% seat factor, 4 extra passengers will burn around 11 kg additional fuel on a 250NM sector, assuming ancillary cargo remains unchanged. This results in a 1.3% fuel burn increase on a 250NM sector, or a 0.65% increase in costs assuming fuel is 50% of the total operating expenses. Yet, due to the four additional seats, the cost per seat, after including the fuel increase, drops by 4.5% on a 250NM sector. We ignore possible increased maintenance costs due to slightly higher stressed operations.
This allows an airline to drop average fares by down to 4.5% to remain competitive in the market at unchanged margins.