ATR believes rising jet fuel costs, aging fleets and its new and reconfigured turboprops are opening the door for the aircraft maker to land some deals with U.S. carriers, CEO Filippo Bagnato says, although he is not predicting the signing of any new agreements soon.

The North American market is showing a “new interest” in the turboprop, Bagnato maintained Feb. 8 in an interview with the CEO and other ATR executives at Aviation Week's offices in Washington. “Clearly, we are preparing ourselves for this opportunity.”

That preparation includes the new cabin for the ATR 42-600 and 72-600 aircraft, providing for a two-class configuration of 40 to 60 seats, with forward doors, more stylish interiors and more overhead bin space.

“All the elements to be ready for a new life of the turboprop in the United States are there,” Bagnato believes.

This is not necessarily an easy sell. Turboprops fell out of favor with U.S. mainline carriers in the 1990s in preference for regional jets.

In recent years, rising fuel prices made the 50-seat regional jets unprofitable for many markets, and Bombardier Q400s gained a bit of traction, primarily with Horizon Air and Colgan Air. But for the most part, the carriers have either been abandoning the markets or, where feasible, using larger jets. Overall, the trend among airlines clearly has been to operate larger regional aircraft—even to the point of blurring the line between mainline aircraft and the largest “regional” aircraft.

ATR, however, believes there is an opening in that smaller-aircraft segment for an aircraft, such as its own, which is more fuel-efficient and emissions-friendly (although the latter is a bigger selling point in Europe). The new -600 series aircraft, the first of which is scheduled for delivery this year, have ATR poised to take advantage, the executive says.

ATR says its turboprops offer the only profitable way to fly short connections, citing operating costs that can be as much as 45% lower. Bagnato repeatedly emphasized the aircraft’s benefits for feeder flights of 350 nautical miles or fewer.

Mark Neely, VP-marketing and sales for ATR North America, says the company is finding “more opportunity than we had thought” for the ATR 42. That’s because of markets where demand has grown beyond the 30-seat aircraft flown on the routes, he says, and because of markets that are a bit too small for the 50-seaters serving them. For the latter, a slightly smaller dual-class aircraft becomes a “pretty attractive proposition.”

Neely says ATR also sees an opening in aging turboprops that airlines will need to replace.

ATR acknowledges some resistance, however. Neely describes the need for an “educational process” to show communities that the new turboprops are more customer-friendly and quieter than their predecessors—and, in any case, that an insistence on regional jet service may mean they get no service at all. ATR is making its pitch directly to U.S. mainline and regional carriers, he says, but for ATR to be successful, the community needs to be on board.

ATR also needs to educate airlines on the value turboprops of this size can provide, he adds.

While ATR sees a path to success in the U.S. market, it does not expect any quick victories, especially in the midst of a still-uncertain economic recovery and ongoing mergers and acquisitions.

“We have to see when they [airlines] are really ready to push on the accelerator and begin to invest,” Bagnato says.