Air NZ’s regional challenge: French-Italian aircraft may help the airline fly into smaller airports

Air NZ’s new CEO, Greg Foran,  will  have  much on his plate when  he  moves into the job. Early on the agenda should be a shake-up of regional air services.

Out in the provinces there’s a strongly held view the airline doesn’t care that much beyond the main trunk and places like Queenstown.  Air Chathams has stepped in but its problem is that of a small company with an elderly fleet including  a WWII DC-3, with one exception, its ATR-72. It is understandably  reluctant to nudge its large neighbour too hard having witnessed what happened to others.

Air NZ is rolling its Mount Cook ATR72 fleet and Air Nelson’s Q300 into one consolidated air operator’s certificate and this will have wider implications. The rationale for splitting the company’s domestic operations in three was to avoid the “stove piping” effect where pilots would move seamlessly from being, say, an Q300 first officer to an ATR72 first officer, then a similar position on an Airbus A320. By keeping pilots on three different company employment contracts, costs could be held.

But the real question  follows   from Air NZ  consistently refusing to countenance aircraft smaller than the 50-seat Q300.  Many regional services cannot sustain an aircraft of that size. There’s another issue too in that some of NZ’s regional airports have runways designed in the 1960s for lighter aircraft and are too short.

Now ATR, the France-Italian manufacturer, might have a solution with its new short takeoff and landing (STOL) ATR42-600S. The company says it will be capable of operating from 800m paved runways with 40 passengers in standard meteorological conditions.  This would be ideal for New Plymouth with its single runway of 1300 metres which can be limited by high temperatures and lack of headwinds.

The new model will have a bigger rudder, the option using spoilers asymmetrically  during landing, and an autobrake system to ensure full braking immediately after touching down.

The aircraft will be powered by the same Pratt & Whitney Canada PW127M engine in the ATR 72-600, but pilots will be able to select between engine ratings for the ATR 42 and ATR 72 in order to increase power for STOL operation or operate more efficiently with less power on longer runways the manufacturer says.

ATR sees the new model replacing ageing 30-seat turboprops such as the Saab 340 while opening up more smaller airports with shorter runways- and markets more suited to 40 passengers.  It will be available from 2022.

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