2009 Articles

NOV 08 2009
Launch of a New Generation - ATR 72-600

It's not everyday a new aircraft gets launched - and it's not everyday you're actually there to witness it. Back in the 1950s and 60s, the aircraft industry was one of prototypes, companies would produce a one-off aircraft to prove an idea, test a concept or just confirm that a system works.

These days much of this work is complete on test rigs and inside computers ensuring that when a new aircraft rolls out of the factory many of the wrinkles have been ironed out, all the manufacturer needs to do is meet the demands of the certifying authority and most importantly the customer.

Even with all that in mind, it was exciting to be an invited guest at the launch of the latest variant of the popular ATR turboprop, the ATR 72-600 series. The Franco-Italian company, part owned by EADS and Alenia Aeronautica - have been building the ATR family of turboprops, 50-seat ATR 42 and 70-seat ATR 72 since the 1980s. The company has built more than 850 aircraft of both types with final assembly carried out at the company's plant at Toulouse alongside the larger jets churned out by Airbus. Recent years have seen a boom in the company's fortunes. We all moaned as fuel prices hiked, but ATR's management were smiling, the efficiency of turboprop airliners over thirsty jets - and more specifically regional jets - has resulted in a phenomenal increase in orders for turboprop airliners. In the late 1990s the company was teetering on the edge of shut down with just a handful of orders, but those days are long gone, today's ATR is rolling a new aircraft off the production line every week of the year.

The series-600 aircraft programme was launched in October 2007, ATR's aim was to improve the performance and efficiency of the aircraft family without making significant changes. What has resulted is an aircraft that essentially looks the same on the outside but is very different inside. The first series-600 is an ATR-72, a company owned machine which acted as the prototype for the ATR 72-500. Registered F-WWEY, the aircraft is fitted with new Pratt & Whitney PW127M engines.

These new engines provide 5% additional power at takeoff, improving performance on short runways, in hot weather and at high altitude. The series-600 also features a modern new avionics suite developed by Thales featuring new navigational aids, an improved autopilot, communications equipment and a multi-purpose computer designed to speed-up aircraft fault diagnosis. The first prototype will be used to carry out test flying and complete the certification process. It is due to be joined in the near future by the first ATR-42-600, which will be the first series-600 built as such and not converted. 'Echo Yankee' took to the air in its new configuration on July 24, 2009, but this first flight went unannounced by ATR who instead left it to the Airliners.net photographers in Toulouse to reveal the aircraft to the world. It wasn't until October when ATR finally took the covers of their new baby with a glitzy launch party and impressive if short flying display.

So far the company has officially sold 59 series-600 aircraft, 54 ATR 72 and just five ATR 42s. Why officially? Well ATR do not count the 10 ATR-72s sold to the Turkish Air Force as maritime patrol aircraft, but GAR understands that these aircraft will be equipped with the new avionics of the series-600 essentially making them ATR 72-600s. But with just five ATR 42s sold, it begs the question, why keep the type in production. ATR says why not, the aircraft no longer has any real competition. Bombardier has now closed the production line for Dash-8 Q300 and now only produces the 70-seat Q400 aircraft.

So if airlines want a new 50-seat turboprop, the ATR 42 is their only option and ATR feel that's reason enough to keep building it. But airlines are also looking to the future and they want larger turboprop, a 90-seater. But ATR say this is still several years away from becoming a reality, because establishing a specification that every airline can agree on is proving far from easy, but as oil prices creep up, demand for this new generation will only increase. Certification of the new series-600 is due at the end of 2010 and first deliveries to customers in 2011.

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