The changing turboprop freighter fleet

The ATR 72F is the most popular turboprop freighter today. Photo: Wikimedia/Kok Vermeulen

The ATR 72F is the most popular turboprop freighter today. Photo: Wikimedia/Kok Vermeulen

Today we begin a three-part analysis of the worldwide turboprop freighter fleet. We start with a bit of history, and then an overview of the fleet as it is today. In coming days we will examine the fleet on a type-by-type basis (read Part II here), and then move onto some thoughts about the very small jet freighters that could be considered competitors to the turboprops, and conclude with a look into the future (read Part III here).

But first, a look into the past: As package volumes declined in Europe and North America during the recession of 2008/2009, the big express companies cut off the expansion of their feeder freighter fleets, and in 2008 the fleet actually shrank slightly, as carriers parked aircraft, and canceled conversion plans. Slow growth returned during 2009, and that trend continued, in fits and starts, through mid-2015.

In our analysis of the turboprop freighter fleet at this time last year, we predicted that demand for these 4-to-9-tonne-payload freighters would increase only slowly in the coming years – that growing demand for express feeder service in Asia would be met by narrowbody jet freighters, while the fleets in the rest of the world, particularly Europe and North America, where 90% of these turboprop freighters are operated, would remain relatively stable. The twelve months since have borne out our prediction, as the fleet grew from 187 units in June 2015 to 194 today – an increase of just 3.7%.

But while the number of 4-to-9-tonne turboprop freighters has changed relatively little in recent years, the composition of the fleet has begun to change, as older ATPFs and ATR 42Fs have been retired, replaced mainly with ATR 72Fs. Between 2011 and 2016, the share of ATR 72Fs in the turboprop freighter fleet has risen from 23.0% to 31.4%. During the same period, the share of ATR 42Fs has fallen from 25.3% to 21.6%. The share of ATPFs has decreased the most, down to 17.0% from 24.0% five years ago. No other types changed by more than two percentage points during the past five years.

World turboprop freighter fleet 2016 v2The chart at right shows the distribution of the turboprop freighter types important in the makeup of the current and future fleet. There are hundreds of smaller aircraft (Cessnas, Beechcraft, Metros, and others) in use as freighters, but they are beyond the scope of this analysis. Older types – such as Shorts 330/360s and F27s – continue to be applied in a freighter role, but their advancing age ensures that the newer types will replace them.

The distribution of the turboprop freighter fleet is quite different from the distribution of the jet freighter fleet. Of the 194 units now in operation, 59.8% (116 units) are operated by European carriers, mostly under contract to integrators or national postal services. 30.4% (59 units) are operated in the US and Canada, many in feeder service for FedEx and UPS, but an increasing number are operated by small, independent carriers on their own behalf. A mere 10% of the fleet tracked in this chart operates in the rest of the world: 1.5% (3 units) in Latin America, 4.1% (8 units) in Asia Pacific, and 4.1% (8 units) in Africa.

In the past we have said that, as domestic and intra-regional demand grows in the Asia-Pacific express market, that region’s share of the total turboprop freighter fleet would gradually increase. However, even with the rapid growth of the Asian express market, many carriers are still focused on building their narrowbody jet freighter fleets (737-300Fs/-400Fs, and 757-200Fs). Whether Chinese express companies will turn to turboprops to extend their air networks to towns in rural areas remains to be seen.

In addition to this turboprop freighter fleet analysis, we also publish three other freighter fleet analyses annually:

A three-part analysis of the narrowbody freighter fleet begins here.

A five-part analysis of the widebody freighter fleet begins here.

A two-part analysis of the fleet of freighters operated by and for the express companies begins here.

If you are interested in a more in-depth look at the worldwide freighter fleet, both as it is today and how it will change over the next twenty years, then consider the annual Twenty-year Freighter Forecast published by Cargo Facts’ parent company, Air Cargo Management Group.

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