Undergraduate Team Aircraft Design
Near-Future Turboprop-Powered Passenger Aircraft
Opportunity / Background
Starting in the mid-1990s, regional jets (turbofan-powered aircraft with seating capacities around 50 passengers) began to displace turboprop aircraft on routes served predominantly by regional or commuter airlines. Today, in 2013, regional jets with seating capacities as low as 35 passengers or as high as 90 passengers fly on many routes in airline networks, and turboprop aircraft have become uncommon. This is due in part to technical characteristics (regional jets have higher cruise speed and higher cruise altitude) and in part to public perception (turboprops are often less comfortable and seem “old-fashioned”). However, turboprop-powered aircraft generally have a fuel efficiency advantage over turbofan-powered aircraft, so turboprop-powered aircraft would seem to be an appealing alternative to turbofan-powered passenger aircraft for short-range segments both in terms of operating economics for the airline as fuel prices increase and in terms of environmental impact (especially CO2 emissions). For most short-range routes, the slightly slower speed of a turboprop aircraft has very little impact on the total block time.
Additionally, as air travel demand continues on a path of generally increasing growth, issues associated with airport capacity may become a limiting factor. At many airports, turboprops follow different departure and arrival procedures, including using different runways than the turbofan aircraft. Therefore, using more turboprops might allow for more passenger throughput at airports.
The opportunity exists to design a near-future (e.g. Entry-in-Service between 2020 and 2022) turboprop-powered passenger aircraft that would greatly reduce the environmental impact from airline operations and improve the economics for the airline. This new aircraft would need to have a comfort level comparable to – or perhaps superior to – competing regional turbofan-powered aircraft to mitigate a poor perception of the aircraft from passengers. On many routes flown by regional jets, and even larger single-aisle transports, the distance is short enough that a “faster” next-generation turboprop could have block times nearly equivalent to a turbofan aircraft. In essence, the opportunity exists to design an aircraft that allows airlines to offer a more “jet-like” passenger experience with turboprop economic efficiency and environmental impact.