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India; 90-seater turbofan a better choice

posted May 4, 2011, 4:05 AM by Rowan Hewitt

Bangalore: India’s attempt to build a regional transport aircraft to tap the booming market for air travel by connecting smaller towns will likely be looking at a 90-seater turbofan jet rather than a shorter, turboprop plane, as originally conceived.

The move would put India into a more competitive area with established companies globally such as Canada-headquartered Bombardier (BBD-B 6.80 ↓-3.55%) Inc and Brazil’s Embraer (ERJ 33.79 ↑5.23%) and new entrant, Russia’s Sukhoi Company. Besides, China is currently test-flying a regional jet while the assembly of Japan’s first Mitsubishi (MTU 4.83 ↑0.63%) Regional Jet began this month.

Feasibility studies show that a 90-seater turbofan aircraft would be a better choice to cover larger distances, besides the lack of a suitable turboprop engine currently, said former Indian Space Research Organisation chairman G Madhavan Nair, who is heading a 16-member high powered committee tasked with overseeing the feasibility studies and evolving an organisational structure for a new entity to undertake commercial production of the plane with private participation.

“We are concentrating on the turbofan type of configuration but at the same time are keeping the option of hitting a turboprop, if required, at a later stage. That depends on the availability of a proper engine. We have kept in mind those factors in the report,” said Nair, who expects to complete a feasibility report in the next one month. The next stage would involve government-level discussions for project approval.

“We have to go as quickly as possible. I would say that anywhere between 3-6 months should be the time within which the whole setup should be in place,” said Nair.

The original design for a regional transport aircraft was built around a new generation turboprop engine, but the availability of such an engine appears doubtful at present. “In addition, in the Indian scenario, it is not only the short routes, we have to service the long, thin routes also. So you require higher speed, which is possible only if we go for a turbofan type of configuration.So these are the factors we considered before we made this recommendation,” said Nair.

Independent assessments by AT Kearney, SBI (500112 2617.35 ↑1.33%) Capital Markets Ltd and IDBI Capital forecast a demand for about 300-500 aircraft in India over the next 10 years.

In a report last year, Bombardier estimated demand at 5,900 aircraft globally in the 60-99 seater category over the next 19 years.

Industry experts say that the attempt to build a turbofan-engined aircraft would place India in a category that has at least 14 aircraft variants globally. In the turboprop segment, there are two established companies, namely ATR  (52.38 ↓-0.85%) and Bombardier.

“If we have got a right product, we can target even some part of the international market also,” Nair said. “We have gone into the details of this design and we have a very good configuration. It has been intense work for the last year so we have a full handle on the design of this aircraft.”

The Bangalore-based National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL  (14.78 ↑0.00%)), which is spearheading the project has set up a design bureau of around 70 people comprising NAL scientists, retired employees of public sector units and fresh recruits.