Saturday, September 22, 2012

Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada: Turboprops in local travelers' futures

Leather seats - comfortable, reasonably wide and far enough apart that your knees don't hit the seat in front.

But there's no TV screen in the "seatback" and the single washroom is tiny.

Welcome aboard the Q400 turboprop airliner. If you fly in or out of Regina, then you'll probably board one in the next few years. "I think that's a reasonable assumption," said Jim Hunter, president and CEO of the Regina Airport Authority.

What's at work are economics and the advancing years of other airliners.

The Bombardier Regional Jets flown into Regina by airlines like Jazz were designed in the late 1980s and are showing their age. Also, there are no jet replacements for them on the production lines.

So as these small jets get older, the betting in the aviation industry is that airlines will replace them with turboprops like the Bombardier Q400.

Jazz, which is being "rebranded as Air Canada Express, has 15 Q400s and just signed options for six more, according to its website, which also says it's taking a number of jets out of service.

The nationwide feeder for Air Canada does not currently fly Q400s into Regina, but has started operating one flight into the city using the Q400's precedessor, the DeHavilland Dash 8. Jazz deferred questions about aircraft deployment to Air Canada, which said Friday it hasn't made a decision.

Meanwhile, Calgary based WestJet recently rocked the Canadian airline world by announcing plans for a short-range regional airline using the Q400, beginning next summer.

Gossip in the airline business holds there will be two main bases, Calgary and Toronto, with Q400s breaking into new markets unserved by WestJet (or other airlines), but also operating alongside its Boeing 737 jets on certain routes.

An example offered by Hunter (who emphasized he hasn't had any official communication on this) could see a route flown by a 737 in the morning and a Q400 in the evening. "Ultimately, they'll be flying on both sides of the country and I think we can expect to see some of them here," he said.

The Q400 is no slouch. Jazz's website says it cruises at 414 mph, compared with 484 mph for the 50-passenger Bombardier CRJ 100 regional jet flown into Regina by Jazz and the regional arms of United Airlines and Delta.

Airline executives say its slightly slower speed is balanced by a shorter climb to cruising altitude. "So the difference in flying time to Calgary, Edmonton or Winnipeg is almost negligible," Hunter said.

The Q400 offers two more advantages over Regional Jets. It carries 74 passengers (compared with 50 in the smallest RJs) and being powered by turboprops, as opposed to jet engines) it burns much less fuel, so it makes more money.

Regina might see the Q400s from yet another airline. Toronto-based Porter has been steadily working its way outward from Ontario, recently reaching Thunder Bay and Moncton. Rumours are flying that Winnipeg might be Porter's next stop, then Regina and Saskatoon.

"That's a huge 'if '", Hunter said. "I don't think they're going to come west of Thunder Bay for the time being."

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