Air New Zealand plans to boost the size of its regional fleet with an order for seven ATR 72-600s, which will be the largest of the carrier’s turboprop types.

The first two of the 68-seat ATRs are scheduled to be delivered in October and December next year, with another two in 2013 and one each in the following three years. Air NZ also secured options for another five aircraft, which would be available for delivery in 2014-2016. With this order, the carrier will become the largest ATR operator in the Pacific region.

The airline’s current regional fleet consists of 11 ATR 72-500s, 23 Bombardier Q300s and 18 Beechcraft 1900Ds. Air NZ CEO Rob Fyfe says the ATR 72-600s are intended for growth, rather than fleet replacements, and will be used initially to upgauge some Q300 routes. Q300s will then freed up to take over from some 1900Ds, which in turn can be used to open new markets, Fyfe says.

The new turboprop fleet will likely be based in Auckland, which is the market that is expected to yield the most growth opportunities for the regional network, says Fyfe. The -500 fleet is based in Christchurch under the Mount Cook Airlines subsidiary.

It has yet to be decided if the aircraft will be operated by Mount Cook or one of the other two existing regional subsidiaries, or if a new one will be created, says Fyfe.

The carrier is still assessing maintenance options for the fleet. However, maintenance will more than likely be handled in Nelson, where the -500 work is carried out. The airline will “need to test [the Nelson facility’s] capacity to handle that,” Fyfe says.

Air NZ is ordering the aircraft directly from ATR, although a decision has not been made on whether some would be financed under a sale-leaseback arrangement.

Fyfe says the airline has yet to decide the replacement plan for its ATR 72-500s, which will probably be retired in another 8-12 years. The 1900Ds will likely be retired in about 10 years, although airline executives lament that there are few replacement options on the market.

Air NZ says the -600s are equipped to fly required navigation performance (RNP) approaches. Queenstown Airport, the major South Island tourism gateway, has RNP approaches, as do Wellington and Rotorua airports. RNP approaches are also due to be introduced at Auckland International Airport early next year.