In a spin

The Middle East, especially the corporate sector, is starting to listen to the benefits offered by small turboprops, such as the Pilatus PC-12.

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By  Laura Barnes Published  September 6, 2005

|~||~||~|Private aviation in the Middle East has long been dominated by jet aircraft, and often very big jets at that. Turboprop makers, by contrast, have rarely made much headway in the region, with many potential customers believing that their planes are small, uncomfortable and just not as safe as jets. However, these misperceptions are starting to be overcome, as people, particularly corporate clients, wake up to the economic advantages of turboprops. Globally, sales of turboprops and piston engine aircraft are on the rise. In 2004, for instance, 2372 planes were sold around the world, according to Forecast International, which was nearly 10% more than in the previous year. The research company also predicts that production rates will continue rising until 2006, when they will reach 2446, the highest level in a decade. Although there are plenty of passenger turboprops, this growth is primarily being driven by freight aircraft. Particularly in markets like South Africa and Australia, turboprops are used for carrying cargo, such as agricultural chemicals and small packages to remote communities with undeveloped runways. Countries in the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia, have similar geography, but despite this, there are few turboprops flying in the region’s skies. “The Middle East has typically been a market for bigger aeroplanes and although there is a market for the King Air turboprop, for example, it is not as strong as some markets like South Africa,” says Sean McGeough, vice president, EMEA, Raytheon Aircraft Company. Turboprop makers are now looking to change this though. Raytheon, for instance, recently appointed Elite Jets as its distributor in the region with the goal of boosting local sales. ExecuJet Middle East was similarly given the distribution rights for Pilatus PC-12s two years ago. However, the company has had more success selling jets than turboprops. “The turboprop market in the Middle East is very small compared to the jets,” admits Nicholla Henderson, sales support coordinator, ExecuJet. “But the PC-12 is good for short hops and intra-regional work… It is also popular [elsewhere] as a pilot-owner aircraft,” she adds. Charter companies are now beginning to pick up on these advantages. Arab Wings, for instance, recently acquired a King Air B200 as part of its fleet renewal process. Ghassan Ali, general manager of the Jordanian charter company, admits that there is still reluctance in the market to use such an aircraft, but he believes this is beginning to change. “Turboprops are not very popular in this region, but people are gradually realising that [the aircraft]… are very practical for short sectors and cost conscious travellers,” he says. “We expect [our turboprop] to become more popular and we are already receiving positive comments from the market and an increase in requests for the King Air,” he adds. Turboprops have not been popular in the region because of misperceptions about their safety and comfort level versus a business jet. In particular, just seeing one engine, with propellers, rather than two jet engines deters potential passengers from getting onboard. “The biggest setback for the turboprop in this region is that the majority of props have a single engine,” says Henderson. ||**|||~||~||~|This safety ‘problem’ is a difficult one for the vendors to tackle. People’s fears are based on outdated misconceptions, but correcting this perception will depend on market education and satisfied customers sharing their experiences. “People in this region are used to jets and they have more trust in them,” admits Ali. “However, we are beginning to see turboprops entering the region and people will soon realise that they are just as safe,” he predicts. The factor most likely to make people fly in a turboprop is economics. A small turboprop costs around US $2-4 million, which is half the price of a similar sized business jet. They also have considerably lower operating and maintenance costs, which makes them much more affordable on either a charter or ownership basis. However, the lower cost of the turboprop does come at the expense of capability, as the planes are undeniably slower and have less range than business jets. The Pilatus PC-12, for example, can ‘only’ fly 1668 km at a cruise speed of 500 kph, which is around half that of a LearJet 60, for instance. For short hops though, these factors are less important than cost, especially in the corporate charter market that is starting to emerge. This market has primarily developed using jets, but turboprops are equally able to carry up to eight passengers in comfortable conditions. They also offer the same convenience as chartering a jet, but at a lower pricepoint. “A lot of corporate clients are beginning to charter aircraft [in the Middle East], and for business meetings across the region, the turboprop is a financially viable option,” notes McGeough. “As the market matures the demographics will also change, seeing a bigger need for shuttling people regionally, and in that respect the turboprop is ideal for the Middle East as it is more efficient in terms of payload and range capabilities,” he adds. Turboprops can also often land closer to where the passenger actually wants to go than jets, because they can use unpaved runways. This would be a key advantage in some of the larger countries in the region, such as Saudi Arabia or Egypt, which have a large number of un-made up runways. “The nice thing about a turboprop is that it can land on unprepared runways and shorter landing strips than a jet, which makes is ideal for areas like Saudi,” says Henderson. Regulatory changes may also make the turboprop more attractive. The JAA in Europe is said to be considering approving single engines to fly through clouds and at night, which would greatly expand what they can do. “If this happens, it will be a big thing for turboprops and give them more scope to do more types of work,” says Henderson. However, despite the advantages offered by turboprops, it is possible that the region might leapfrog them and instead buy newly developed aircraft, such as the Grob Spn. This utility jet, which will enter service in two years’ time, is being developed by Grob Aerospace and ExecuJet. The two companies are promoting the aircraft as combining the comfort of a jet with the cost efficiency and operating standards of a turboprop. It also has two engines and no propellers, which may well make it more appealing than a turboprop to nervous flyers. “The Grob is an alternative to the turboprop and while it is slightly more expensive it is a good option for corporate clients who do not want to charter a jet,” says Henderson.||**||

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