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First Air’s ATR42 combi page 2

Story and photos by Raymon J. Kaduck

British Aerospace attempted to renew the 748 line in 1984, modifying the nose and tail, improving the engines and avionics and stretching the airframe to a 64-seat configuration. The ATP (Advanced Turboprop) was not particularly popular; however, the aircraft is operated by a handful of British carriers.

First Air owns a single 2B version, with Dart 535 engines, which has been pulled off the flight line. The remainder are 2A versions, powered by Dart 534s. The majority have standard 46 x 53-inch rear cargo doors, but one has a large 103 x 67-inch door. “We have operated the HS 748 for nearly 20 years,” says Don Orr, First Air’s VP Flight Operations and Maintenance. “The highest number ever owned was nine. Currently, there are six.”

Other Canadian HS 748 operators include Air Inuit, Air Creebec, Air North, Calm Air, West Wind Aviation and Wasaya Airways.

The search for a successor
The HS 748 is an ageing workhorse and, as technology improves, its relatively heavy maintenance regime and poor fuel efficiency should make it uncompetitive, except there is nothing its equal.

“You can’t directly replace a HS 748 in terms of payload and range,” says Orr. “The more important issue is flexibility. We could have split our freight and passengers entirely, but that means operating two aircraft types–more training costs. The second option was to go with an aircraft that was somewhat smaller than the 748, but could, with configuration changes, undertake the same roles. Although the ATR42 doesn’t offer the ability to do quick change reconfiguration, at least we can accomplish multiple roles.”

According to Orr, First Air’s search for a successor aircraft has been an ongoing process. “In 1995, we did a very serious study of replacement types, including the Dash 8, ATR42 and ATR72, Fokker 50 and CASA 235. Economically, it wasn’t the right time to make the change, and also there wasn’t a clear winner between the types. The fuel and maintenance benefits of replacing the Hawkers with more modern aircraft had always been clear, but the capital costs of buying them were just too high.”

By about 2000-01, used aircraft values had changed. With aircraft prices now at attractive levels, the company found a smaller field of candidates: “Fokker was out of the market. On further investigation, we determined that the CASA 235 would not meet our needs. It was just too small. So it came down to the Dash 8 and the ATR.”

The easier choice would have been the Dash 8-100, which has been successfully operated by Air Inuit in the Nunavik region of northern Quebec. Air Inuit and First Air are both owned by the Makivik Corporation, which manages the proceeds of the 1975 James Bay land claim agreement for the 9,000 Inuit of the region. In addition to buying a Canadian-manufactured aircraft, the company would be getting a proven Arctic performer. But there was a catch.

“From our 1995 study, we knew that two types were needed, a mixture of Dash 8‑100s and ‑300s in the fleet,” says Orr. “Also, there would be some issues certifying it with a new interior–not to say that it couldn’t be done. So the ATR was growing in favour during this period of time. And a fairly comprehensive study of ageing aircraft costs determined that the ATR was more favourably priced than expected.”

Even though the ATR came out the winner, Orr admits that the two types are both very capable. If anything, the ATR had to overcome a prejudice in favour of the Bombardier product: “The two aircraft were comparable, in our minds. The ATR had better characteristics. It was in between the Dash 8-100 and -300 in size and would operate off nearly all of our runways. It also had a desirable loading door location for a combi.”

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