Turboprop Comeback

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The announcements of the death of the turboprop aircraft appear to have been a bit premature. The much-maligned technology is making a comeback in a big way, driven by increasing jet fuel prices. It seems the turboprop is anywhere from 25 to 33% more efficient – and regional carriers are taking note of that.

BRUSSELS, Belgium – As fuel prices soar to record highs and airlines struggle to maintain profitability, the unglamorous but fuel-efficient turboprop regional airliner is making a remarkable comeback.

The revival of the propeller-driven planes — which typically consume a quarter to a third less fuel than equivalent jets — marks a significant new trend in the industry. Until recently, many commuter airlines had been determined to consign the planes to history and convert to all-jet fleets, which offer greater passenger comfort.

Although the latest generation of turboprops has addressed some of the comfort issues by flying above turbulence and providing quieter cabins, analysts say the airlines’ money worries about their bottom line now outweigh any passenger preferences.

This is interesting. Earlier today, I read this piece from the New York Times about another technology that was supposed to be dead and gone by now: the mainframe computer. The story hits on why old technologies sometimes don't die.

Today, mainframe sales are a tiny fraction of the personal computer market. But with the mainframe facing extinction, I.B.M. retooled the technology, cut prices and revamped its strategy. A result is that mainframe technology — hardware, software and services — remains a large and lucrative business for I.B.M., and mainframes are still the back-office engines behind the world’s financial markets and much of global commerce.

The mainframe stands as a telling case in the larger story of survivor technologies and markets. The demise of the old technology is confidently predicted, and indeed it may lose ground to the insurgent, as mainframes did to the personal computer. But the old technology or business often finds a sustainable, profitable life. Television, for example, was supposed to kill radio, and movies, for that matter. Cars, trucks and planes spelled the death of railways. A current death-knell forecast is that the Web will kill print media.

What are the common traits of survivor technologies? First, it seems, there is a core technology requirement: there must be some enduring advantage in the old technology that is not entirely supplanted by the new. But beyond that, it is the business decisions that matter most: investing to retool the traditional technology, adopting a new business model and nurturing a support network of loyal customers, industry partners and skilled workers.

It seems that the humble propeller has some enduring advantage after all. Moving people around using less fuel to do so is a business decision. It appears that airlines are getting that fact and acting on it. One wonders if some of the companies that used to produce turboprops are thinking about dusting off the old blueprints and taking another look at the market.

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3 Responses to Turboprop Comeback

  1. Sam says:

    As an interesting coincidence, I read the article about mainframes just before reading this.  It took me back to my college days when I first learned to write FORTRAN using a card punch machine and an IBM 360 mainframe.  That would have been about 1974.  How far we have come in the last 34 years.

  2. Sam says:

    Oh, and I have spent many unhappy hours wadded up in a Metroliner on business travel around the west, the ones with 20 seats that you can’t stand straight up in.  I’m hoping that they don’t bring them back.  On the other hand, the Embraer Brasilias weren’t too bad.  I’m hoping that a “Turboprop Comeback” will involve larger, more comfortable planes.

  3. Pingback: Blue Crab Boulevard » Not Everything Old Is New Again

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