Jets versus turboprops

Cessna Caravan

The major manufacturers offer a wide choice in the six to eight passenger business jet market. However, when you factor in turboprop aircraft, the choice becomes more complex. FlyCorporate’s Rod Simpson investigates.

Among the six to eight passenger jet aircraft currently on the market are several flavors of Cessna Citation, a pair of Learjets and the Phenom 100 and 300. But when you widen your vision to include turboprops, you have to add in the three versions of Beechcraft’s King Air, Piaggio’s Avanti and such single-engine turboprops as the Pilatus PC-12 NG, Daher-Socata TBM 900 and Piper Meridian.

So, what are the pros and cons of turboprops compared to the light jets?

Understanding the turboprop

For a start, we need to explain the turboprop.

Essentially, this class of aircraft utilize a gas turbine (jet) engine to drive a propeller rather than relying on jet thrust to move the aircraft forward. Although most turboprop engines are PT6A variants manufactured by Pratt & Whitney Canada, quite a few use Honeywell’s TPE331. These engines are outstandingly reliable and power not only business aircraft, but also military, agricultural and small airliner aircraft.

When compared to pure-jet aircraft, it is clear that turboprops do not fly as fast. For example, a King Air 250 will cruise at 310 kts, whereas a jet (turbofan) powered Embraer Phenom 300 cruises at 453 kts. Consequently, the King Air will take an hour longer than the Phenom to complete the same 1,000 mile trip.

That being said, when it comes to speed, all turboprops aren’t created equal. In fact, some turboprops are considerably faster – Piaggio’s Avanti Evo cruises at over 400 kts, which is not significantly slower than the Phenom.

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To the advantage of the turboprop, it is worth mentioning that these aircraft are generally more capable of using grass airfields, whereas most jets require a concrete runway for takeoff and landing. When it comes to really short grass airstrips, there is nothing that beats a single-turboprop King Air 250 or Quest Kodiak.

From the passenger’s standpoint, modern twin-turboprop aircraft are as comfortable and well equipped as business jets and, while they may feel a little different to ride in, their vibration and noise levels are very acceptable. The increasingly popular single-turboprop aircraft are also extremely comfortable and are not only safe, but also have the plus of lower costs offered by having just the one engine.

Overall, turboprops have a lower cost of operation and, for companies flying fairly short sectors of maybe 300 or 400 miles, the time penalty compared with jets is negligible. However, the cost savings are considerable. For example, with an Avanti you can save $195 per hour in fuel compared to a Citation CJ3. Some other expenses such as maintenance costs per flight hour and, perhaps, insurance tend to also be lower for turboprops.

Turboprop aircraft are also capable of operating into smaller airstrips than jets, which can be important for many business users who need to visit smaller airports.  For instance, a King Air 250 can operate into a 2,400 ft runway, whereas a Citation CJ4 requires a third more runway length.

Is a turboprop the right choice for you?

To illustrate why a turboprop might be the right choice for you, let’s say you are an agricultural equipment company based in Wichita, Kansas. You have a plant in Salem, Missouri that you must visit very regularly. Using a light jet such as a Citation CJ4 will require you to go to Springfield or Jefferson City and then face a long and tedious two-hour car ride. However, Salem has a small airfield with a 3,000 ft runway – ideal for a turboprop such as the King Air 250. The flight time from Wichita would be around 10 minutes longer than for the Citation, but you would be on your way and at the Salem plant just 10 minutes after landing, to say nothing of a fast getaway at the end of the day.

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For the businessman-pilot who has been operating a high performance single piston-engine aircraft such as the Piper Malibu or Cessna 210, there is always pressure to move up into an aircraft with better performance. In this case, moving into a jet can be a very big step, and many owners find that a change to a turboprop single such as the Meridian or TBM 900 offers a much more acceptable transition. Many argue that turboprop aircraft feel more like the propeller aircraft they are familiar with, giving the pilot a better sense of controllability and lower landing speeds than what they experience with jets.

Then there is always the question of cost that must be considered. A new King Air C90GTx turboprop with seven passenger seats will cost around $4.0 million, but a Citation CJ2+ jet with similar seating is nearly double the price.

All about use

In making your decision, the key question remains: “what do you need to use the aircraft for”?

For many business and private users, the aircraft has to operate between larger towns and fly medium distances of up to 2,000 miles – in which case a turboprop might not be the answer. In this case, the faster light jets make a lot more sense and give you much more flexibility, even giving you the option to make two or more stops during a business day.

So turboprop or jet?

Really, it all comes down to understanding your business needs and carefully selecting the right aircraft that matches these needs.