GE Aviation is predicting steady if not increasing demand for turboprop aircraft going forward, and believes the demise of the 50-seat airliner is greatly exaggerated.

With more than 1,800 turboprop deliveries scheduled through 2030, a downward pressure on fuel prices could even mean that number will grow, says Chuck Nugent, general manager for regional and business aviation at GE. “We see this as an opportunity.”

GE also may develop an engine to power a turboprop in the 70-100 seat market. It has developed the concept for a next generation turboprop engine, called the CPX38, to serve that market. This already is a reality on the military side, the GE38, which could then be adapted for civilian turboprop use by 2016 if demand arises. And, just like Pratt & Whitney Canada, GE is seeing interest by some operators in what it sees as a natural migration from 50-seat to 70- or 90-seat turboprops.

But it is the CF34-3 that has been the workhorse of the regional airline industry for the company. Last year it hit the 5,000th delivery milestone of the product line, and this year expects to reach the 1,000th delivery milestone for the CF34-10, its newest model. A couple of months ago it delivered the 2,000th CF34-8. And, Nugent says, “we are still seeing strong usage of the 50-[passenger aircraft]” even though many in the industry are questioning its future.

Historically, GE has delivered 400 CF34s per year (not counting business jets), but last year that slumped to 300. Nugent says the company expects 2011 delivery growth of 10% over last year, and 15% growth in 2012 over 2011. It sees some of that growth, especially for the -10E, coming from Latin America and China. And while growth rates in those regions are higher than North America and Europe, some growth will come from larger operators in the latter two markets. “Going forward, looking at market demographics, growth rates are definitely higher in Latin America and Asia than in North America or Europe. But the size of the fleets is definitely larger in North America and Europe,” he says.

Nugent says the reason GE is more bullish on 50-seaters is because of maintenance optimization programs. Many of the -3s now coming into maintenance shops are there for their first visit at 18,000 cycles. “We have a package that optimizes the work scope at that shop visit so they can make it up to 36,000 cycles before the next shop visit,” he says. Not all make it to that interval, but he says many only go into the shop once in 18 years.

For the -8s delivered about 10 years ago, GE now is seeing the rate of shop visits increase to about 200 per year, “so there are significant maintenance opportunities for us and our partners.”

What sets its newest model, the CF34-10, apart from the others is its delivery diversity; about 70% are outside of North America. Since it was introduced in 2005, GE has introduced a 2.2% lower fuel consumption improvement, and “we have another half a percent or so in the pipeline,” says Nugent. That engine is a sole-source program with Comac.

GE also is taking lessons learned and applying to its next generation of turbofan, the NG34. Customer interest is good, he says, but without a specific aircraft or customer, it is hard to specifically say what that engine will be capable of delivering. However, it is still important to show customers what capabilities are there, so they know what range of options they have in deciding on next generation aircraft. “The airframers continue to contemplate where to go next with the next generation turboprop platform,” he says.