Turboprops: Resilient, productive aircraft for intra-Africa air services

Air access is key to growing tourism markets in Africa. A number of African airlines are improving air links within the continent and West African region following a shift from  regional aircraft to smaller aircraft especially Turboprops. This has brought some of the most exciting developments in the realm of intra-African air services.

Flying within West Africa and within East Africa had long been costly for airline operators but that is slowly beginning to change as air service regulations loosen and airlines discover the potential of intra-African services.

In 2018, Africa’s biggest and most profitable airline, Ethiopian Airlines, announced aircraft purchases valued at around $332 million to help solidify its domestic and regional reach.


One of Overland Airways’ ATR aircraft

The order of the Q400 turboprops was to expand its DeHavilland Canada fleet to 39 and to help reach under-served markets in Africa, especially those with low traffic density routes and small or challenging airfields.

As intra-African travel improves and becomes more affordable, Ethiopian aims to become the pan-African passenger and cargo network that connects the continent. It has done so partly through strategic investments and partnerships and reviving defunct or struggling airlines like Zambia Airways.

The company also manages hubs in countries including Malawi and Togo to spread its network and is currently looking to establish more central locations in Mozambique, Chad, and Equatorial Guinea.

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Lome, Togo-based ASKY Airline, an affiliate of Ethiopian Airlines took delivery of three Q400 NextGen turboprop aircraft to service West African routes like Lagos, Abuja, Accra, and other routes within the continent.

The Q400 NextGen turboprop airline, which is built at DeHavilland Canada’s Toronto, Ontario facility, is the most recent development in the evolution of the Q400 aircraft, and the advanced successor to DeHavilland Canada’s (ex-Bombardier) Dash 8/Q-Series family of aircraft. Optimized for short-haul operation, the comfortable 70- and 80-seat Q400 NextGen aircraft is a large, fast, quiet, and fuel-efficient turboprop.

It provides an ideal balance of passenger comfort and operating economics with a reduced environmental footprint. The Q400 and other turboprop airliners are designed to meet the requirements of contemporary regional air transport characterized by both turboprops and jet missions.

A former Chief Executive Officer of Virgin Nigeria, Capt. Dapo Olumide said turboprops are some of the most productive aircraft in the West African sub-region depending on the distance to be covered, adding that the modern turboprops like the Dash Q-400 are just as fast as CRJ jet regional jets.

“So, it has nothing to do with speed but when you talk about intra-African operations, it is a huge difference in distance between Lagos and Cotonou. For example, if you are doing Lagos-Cotonou, Lagos-Accra, yes Turboprop is ideal. It is perfect, it is fuel-efficient among other things. It doesn’t need ground support equipment to offload the luggage. It does not need to go to the gates because gates are very expensive”, said Olumide.

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”As you go further like Lagos to Dakar, Laos-Pointe Noire, Lagos to Nairobi, a turboprop cannot make that far distance. It is ideal for one-hour flights. In other words, for Nigerian domestic operations, it is perfect. You don’t need more than that. On intra-Africa, it depends on how far away it is. Lagos-Accra, turboprop is fine but you have to think about high-density routes”.

Virtually all the airports in Nigeria  are served by turboprop aircraft. Overland Airways, which has the highest number of turboprop airplanes has a fleet of nine modern aircraft composed of ATR- 42s‚ ATR-72s, and Beechcraft 1900Ds. They are deployed to various destinations in Nigeria‚ West and Central Africa.

Managing Director of Overland Airways, Capt. Edward Boyo had stated that in selecting an aircraft for operations, one needs to consider the business model of such an airline which determines the right size of airplanes to use which could be long haul aircraft and narrow-body airplanes for regional services and small airplanes for short-haul operations.

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Ethiopian Airways’ Bombardier Q400

Many airlines in West Africa operate turboprops or very small airplanes in the last three years. This is what Nigerian operators have not been able to comprehend because of the penchant to acquire and operate 737 Classics that are fuel-guzzling and very expensive to maintain. Because the distances are very short, many operators have continued to deploy the popular Q400 and ATR planes.

The winners have the right type of equipment. There are two things that work against airlines that get it wrong. The second mistake they make is to think that jet aircraft are cheaper than turboprops. A turboprop is more modern than an old jet plane. For example, a Q-400 is more advanced than a 737 classic. Regional jets and turboprops are competing based on cost and also based on the business model of operators, especially on distance.

The acquisition of a regional jet is similar to a turboprop but in terms of operating cost, they are not the same. It depends on whether the operator wants the complexity of maintaining them or the simplicity of a jet engine.


Wole Shadare