As a young reporter in the late 1980s, I covered the then-pending contest for the Joint Primary Aircraft Training System (JPATS), an historic joint-service effort to find a cheaper and more efficient way to create the next generation of military pilots. Among the seven eventual entrants when the RFP was released in 1994 were two turboprops: Embraer's EMB-312H Super Tucano offered in partnership with Northrop, and the Beech-Pilatus PC-9 Mk. 2. We know the Pilatus today as the T-6 Texan II because program managers, defying conventional wisdom that the U.S. would never train next-generation pilots in a turboprop, instead found they could meet the entire training syllabus at turboprop costs.

That stuck with me as the years went on and I watched modern-technology turboprops—remember the Saab 2000?—fall by the wayside while marketplace wisdom declared modern travelers would reject turboprops as uncomfortable and old-fashioned. The regional-jet era had dawned, complete with new airframes, new pilot contracts and a whole new economics for running airlines.

As my colleague Brad Perrett observed from Beijing a few weeks ago, “What a difference an eightfold rise in fuel prices makes” (AW&ST Aug. 5/12, p. 38).

Today five manufacturers, including market leader ATR (see photo), are clamoring to design the next generation of turboprops. During the next decade, overall turboprop fleet growth is expected to be slow, but by the end of that 10-year span, many turboprop manufacturers see a new and competitive age dawning. With relatively new RJs heading to the desert for mothballing in substantial numbers, it is clear airlines are beginning to see the value of saving as much as 30% fuel burn per seat with a turboprop versus a 50- or 70-seat RJ.

Aircraft such as Bombardier's CSeries, the Embraer E-Jets, and new entrants from Japan and China are all moving RJ economics in the right direction with innovative new powerplants and clever aerodynamics. But Kiran Rao, Airbus executive vice president for strategy and future programs, recently told reporters in Toulouse the new jets' efficiency—despite all that investment—still can't beat the economics of turboprop airliners whose basic design concept is some three decades old.

Rao was recently named chairman of ATR, the 50/50 turboprop venture between EADS and Alenia, so this is a future program that probably holds particular interest for him.

Small jets “have a difficult time in a high fuel-cost environment, and so the turboprop starts to become a better proposition than even the 110- or 120-seat jet,” Rao says. “I think . . . what we will see now is the turboprops looking to evolve into larger airplanes, quieter airplanes, [with] lower vibration . . . bigger overhead bins, under-floor storage for the baggage, and we will see the turboprop industry taking its next step probably toward the end of this decade.”

The Aviation Week Fleet and Forecast team is just finishing its preliminary look at the turboprop market, and although the near-term 10-year outlook is for slow fleet growth—perhaps a 0.8% compound annual growth rate (CAGR) through 2022—just over the horizon it does look to be anybody's game. While 1,260 turboprops will be delivered during the period, Aviation Week estimates that around 871 will be retired, as demand begins to grow for larger, more fuel-efficient replacements.

At this stage what's missing is the investment commitment, and the two leaders—Bombardier and ATR—have other calls on their wallets right now. Bombardier is wrestling with the CSeries, and ATR, while asking its two big shareholders for the go-ahead, is getting signals from EADS that they may want to wait a bit. That's not surprising, given spending on A320NEO and A350. But with about two-thirds of the market for the next 10 years, ATR's moves will signal the rest of the industry about how real the large-turboprop opportunity is after 2020 or so. Rivals, engine-makers and airlines are listening closely.