ATR, the French-Italian turboprop aircraft manufacturer, has announced a special edition to its product family Wednesday with Air Tahiti as the launch customer.
By the end of 2022, it will be introducing a STOL (Short Take-Off and Landing) version of its familiar ATR 42 base model, called the ATR 42-600S.
The company has signed letters of intent for a total of 20 orders, most of them by leasing company Elix Aviation Capital, with regional carrier Air Tahiti first off the rank.
This announcement is of huge significance to one of the most special regional carriers in the world, as AirlineRatings witnessed first hand on a recent visit to French Polynesia.
Air Tahiti is the lifeline for a territory as big as Western Europe, but with just 283,000 inhabitants spread over 118 islands.
Only 47 of these islands have airfields enabling regular air service to Tahiti, the main island with the French overseas territory’s capital Papeete.
“Of these 47 airports, five are not currently able to take ATRs,” Air Tahiti’s CEO Manate Vivish told AirlineRatings in an exclusive interview.
These airports so far have needed complicated logistics and include the remote Marquesas archipelago, a dream destination for many French visitors as this was the home of painter Paul Gauguin and Belgian chansonnier Jacques Brel.
The two main islands Nuku Hiva and Hiva Oa get daily service from Tahiti, the world’s longest overwater flight by turboprops under extended twin engine operation (ETOPS) conditions and involving more than three and a half hours flying time.
But the smaller neighbors Ua Pou and Ua Huka have to be reached by connecting flights in Twin Otter or Beechcraft aircraft specially based here for that purpose, which makes operations expensive. The cheapest one-way ticket on this connection from the Marquesas to Tahiti costs about $US412.
Air Tahiti operates a pure ATR fleet, currently consisting of seven ATR 72-600s and two smaller ATR 42-600s.
“As we see growth both of tourism and local travel, we had to lease in another ATR 72 from South Africa,” says Vivish.
The South Pacific carrier has been supporting the launch of ATR’s STOL version from the start, signing a letter of intent for two aircraft, both to replace its two current ATRs plus the Twin Otters.
The hope was to receive them by the end of 2021 or early 2022, now ATR has announced that certification is only expected in the second half of 2022 with first deliveries starting shortly after.
“ATRs normally need about 1,200 meters of runway to operate, but Ua Pou and Ua Huka only offer 800 meters,” explains Vivish. “
While using the same engines as other ATRs, in the STOL version there is 100 percent engine power available at take-off “ which in turn means a penalty on engine cycles,” according to the CEO.
The main difference to the ATR base models is a bigger vertical stabilizer and rudder to improve handling at lower speeds.
To enable short landings, the STOL version will be able to deploy its spoilers symmetrically, improving braking efficiency, it will also come with an autobrake system to deploy full braking power at touchdown.
“We have already tested STOL procedures with regular ATRs for pilot training at Ua Huka and Ua Pou,” Vivish notes.
ATR forecasts it can grow its potential market by 25 percent with the STOL version, enabling to connect about 500 more airports worldwide to regular air traffic which only have short runways from 800 to 1,000 meters in length.
Lowering its costs through more efficient operations thanks to ATR’s new STOL version could enable Air Tahiti to bring down its exorbitant ticket prices.
“Fares could be lower, but we have to make tourists pay for the local services we operate,” admits the chief executive, noting that only five to seven routes out of 47 destinations served are profitable
“We are talking about luxury destinations such as Bora Bora, tourists here are not price-sensitive,” he adds.
In total, Air Tahiti has carried 826,000 passengers in 2018, one third being tourists, with 539.000 guests flown on the popular and profitable routes.
Almost a quarter of all passengers, 199,702 to be precise, flew on the bread-and-butter run between Tahiti and Bora Bora, the biggest tourist destination.
The 50-minute-flights are offered from about $US189 one way.
“On the other end of the spectrum there are islands such as Reao or Vahitai with less than a hundred inhabitants, we serve such destinations once a week, though they generate less than 300 passengers a year for us, it’s a community service not subsidized by the government,” explains Vivish.
At the same time, Air Tahiti offers a superior passenger experience even on short flights, the cabins boasting the brand new bench-style, lightweight double seats by French start-up Expliseat, for which the airline was a launch customer