“Mind the gap” might be the public address warning given at rail stations to alert passengers to the space between the platform and the train, but the warning could well be applied to airlines as they look to grow their fleet from turboprops to jets. They don’t need to take too big a leap.

For many years, that big step meant looking at the smaller members of the Airbus and Boeing narrowbody families. Now, with the Bombardier C Series family, the Embraer E-Jets E2 family, the Sukhoi Superjet 100 and the Mitsubishi MRJ90, there are other options. While large regional jets have been a choice, they did not have the range of these new-generation aircraft offering 90-150 seats—crossover jets that can also boast seat-mile costs closer than ever to even the core members of the Airbus and Boeingnarrowbody families.

“A strategy for growing does not necessarily imply that an operator needs to get bigger airplanes or to upgauge. Bigger planes sometimes equal bigger risks,” admits Antoine Chereau, director, market analytics and airline marketing, Americas at Bombardier Commercial Aircraft. The OEM’s new C Series aircraft is designed to lessen such risk.

Wideroe Embraer 190-E2

“From our perspective, the clinching argument is dependent on the operator’s different market needs. You can have a portfolio of products to answer to your different markets’ needs. Take Flybe, for example. Here is an operator that uses turboprops as their core business and complements it with a few jets,” Chereau notes.

Exemplifying an airline answering “its different markets’ needs” is one of Bombardier’s own C Series customers. Braathens Regional Airlines is currently flying ATR 72-600s and Avro RJs. Looking to move up from regional jets, the carrier ordered 10 Bombardier CS100s, the first of which is scheduled to arrive during the second half of 2020.

Braathens Chief Operating Officer (COO) Petter Eklund outlines the clinching arguments that led the airline to choose a crossover jet, rather than a smaller member of the traditional narrowbody families, when looking to grow the jet fleet that sits above its turboprop fleet.

“The main reasons we selected the CS100 were the range, operational suitability for short runways, noise certification and the possibility to create new business opportunities pending the totality of range and short field performance,” Eklund explains. “Sweden is a large country with quite long flight distances to some of the regional destinations. This makes the CS100 well-suited for those flight distances and passenger volumes on our main routes.

“At the same time as operating our own schedule, we want to meet the demand from tour operators and corporate customers for midhaul flights from Sweden, with slightly lower seat capacity than available in Sweden today,” the COO adds. The CS100’s 3,100-nm range will be an important attribute in helping Braathens deliver on those commitments economically.

Victor Vieira, head of market strategy at Embraer Commercial Aviation, believes fleet optimization is “gaining an ever-increasing significance in the industry, as greater control in matching aircraft capacity to market demand is critical in the fluctuations of business cycles.”

The Embraer exec sets out his reasoning: “With rising costs—notably jet fuel and labor—the line separating winners and losers in the global airline industry looks likely to be drawn on how well they manage the revenue side. Keeping revenues ahead of costs is still a real struggle, so airlines need to strike the right balance between capacity additions and sustainable yields,” Vieira remarks.

“Profitability remains elusive for carriers facing the challenge of surplus capacity. The overreliance on large aircraft results in inefficiencies that, in turn, generally lead to deep fare discounting in order to fill excess capacity,” he continues. “Crossover narrowbody jets are the most effective tool to bridge the gap in the market between turboprops and the lower end of the narrowbody family. The category offers incremental capacity for turboprop operators with lower risk, and is optimized to deliver not only a competitive cost structure and higher profitability, but also provide flexibility to serve different missions, tapping the acute equipment gap created by the unavailability of efficient and tailored solutions in the segment for several years.”

According to Vieira, the low sales figures for the Airbus A319neo and Boeing 737-7 do not stem from low market demand in the up-to-150-seat segment, but “the inability to deliver the level of efficiency required by the industry.” At the other side of the gap, turboprops remain specific to the short-haul missions and niche markets where their inherent advantages lie. “These are usually in monopolistic routes; three out of four routes operated by turboprops have a single service provider,” he observes.

“In sectors longer than 250 nm—approximately 30% of turboprop flights worldwide—jets are more efficient costwise, and deliver higher productivity and comfort level, with the right economics. Crossover jets offer the right capacity upgauge in terms of product positioning for turboprop operators to expand services in highly competitive routes,” says Vieira.

Embraer has had its own success in Scandinavia, helping turboprop operator Wideroe move into jets by putting the E190-E2 into service. Examples abound elsewhere: Air Tanzania will be adding two CS300s to its three Bombardier Q400s and one Q300; the core of Azul’s network has been built using E190/195s and ATRs (and the carrier has E2s on order); Mandarin Airlines has paired six E190s with a fleet of ATR 72-600s destined to reach nine aircraft; and Yakutia has placed five SSJ100s between its fleet of Q300s/400s and five 737-800s.

“Multiclass services and multiple types of aircraft—rather than the one-size-fits-all approach—serving different missions are key facilitators to go beyond the minimum requirements of operational and financial performance,” Vieira concludes.