Twenty years ago, the conventional wisdom was that business turboprops were all but dead, destined to die ignominious deaths stripped of their executive interiors and then consigned to hauling small packages, dropping skydivers, or—on their last legs—spraying pests before meeting that big smelter in the sky. Surely the market would opt for a new generation of fuel-efficient light jets as opposed to going steerage in something from the aeronautical Stone Age with—gasp—propellers.
Surely not. Consider the following:
While deliveries of new business jets are relatively flat year over year for the first six months of 2018, those for new turboprops are up nearly 10 percent, climbing to 260 from 237, according to the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA). The high-end, pressurized turboprop segment is up 12 percent. For the first six months of the year, deliveries of new Textron Aviation Beechcraft King Airs are up 30 percent. Gama Aviation, which operates the fleet for charter membership company Wheels Up, saw its flight hours for the first half of the year surge to 72,885 from 61,651 as it expanded its fleet from 99 to 117, most of them King Air 350s. Last year Wheels Up CEO Kenny Dichter said he could see a future for his company having up to 75,000 members and 1,000 King Airs in North America and Europe by 2030. Considering that Wheels Up had 63 King Airs in 2017, that may be slight hyperbole, but the influx of new activity has turned this into a Lazarus Market, in which turboprop models previously left on the side of the road for dead have been brought back to life, to wit: Piaggio recently reported that it had 12 of its new Avanti Evos on the assembly line and India’s NAL put the latest version of its Saras twin pusher into the air in January and is continuing the three-decade-old development program.
Then there’s the used turboprop market: It remains extremely tight. The percentage of the used turboprop in-service fleet for sale in June stood at just 6.6 percent, down from 7.6 percent a year ago and compared to 9.1 percent of the used jet fleet available for sale. The scarcity of good used aircraft has convinced owners to pour money into upgrades and modifications for older turboprops. Blackhawk Modifications, which specializes in upgrades for turboprops including King Airs, Cessna Caravans, and Piper Cheyennes, reports that business is up 40 percent in 2018 year over year.
In years past, the turboprop market has been a steady constant against the shifting winds of the larger business aviation market, but this year it is actually outperforming the rest of the market, in no small part thanks to the robust charter market and the growth of single seat and whole aircraft membership services. And this is a trend that is likely to continue. At least some very smart money is betting on it. Textron Aviation currently has two new turboprops under development. Assuming no changes to its current product lineup, when these two new models are certified, its turbine product model mix will be an equal number of fanjets and turboprops, an idea that was all but unfathomable a few short years ago.
What companies like Textron and Wheels Up understand is that, as business aviation becomes more democratized with more cost-effective service offerings that have wider market appeal, the hardware has to match the mission and pricing economics rather than the ego. And that hardware is still called a turboprop.