In the late 1980s, Swedish plane maker Saab Scania was riding high with its successful 340 turboprop airliner. First introduced in 1983, 459 examples would roll off the production line and fly with airlines worldwide.
Buoyed by this success, Saab looked at creating a larger, faster variant perceived to meet the demand for the 50-seater market. Utilising new state-of-the-art Computer Aided Three-Dimensional Interactive Application Computer-Aided Design or CATIA CAD for short, the development of the Saab 2000 was way ahead of its time.
The airframe retained the same cross-section as the Saab 340 but was stretched by 7.55 meters (24 ft 9 in). This allowed Saab to offer airlines two interior configurations depending on their needs. Up to 50 passengers could be carried in the spacious cabin with a seat pitch of 32 inches. Saab also offered a 58-seat high-density layout with a seat pitch of 30 inches.
To improve the types control in flight, the wingspan was also extended by 15%, increasing from 21.44 meters (70 ft 4 in) on the model 340 to 24.76 meters (81 ft 3 in).
A state-of-the-art Collins Pro Line 4 Electronic Flight Instrument System (EFIS) avionics suite was in the flight deck with six colour Cathode-Ray-Tube (CRT) displays.
Cabin noise would be reduced by an active noise control system comprising 72 microphones and 36 speakers, which generate anti-phase noise. This was groundbreaking; even today, very few aircraft use this system.
The new Allison GMA 2100 turboprop engine powered the aircraft and large six-blade Dowty composite propellors.
Fastest Turboprop In The World
The engines gave the Saab 2000 enormous thrust, allowing the type to become one of the fastest turboprop aircraft in the world with a maximum cruising speed of 682km/h (368kt). It remains around 100 km/h higher than competing models such as the ATR-42, Fokker 50 and Dash-8-300.
These new features and exceptional performance made the aircraft more than just a stretch of the 340; it was a completely new aircraft. Indeed, the type was more than comparable to jet aircraft.
The manufacturer officially launched the Saab 2000 project in May 1989. Several airlines had placed firm orders for 46 airframes and options on a further 147. Assembly of the type took place at Saab’s Linköping factory in southern Sweden.
On March 26, 1992, the prototype Saab 2000 took to the skies for the first time. At the controls were pilots Eric Sjöberg and Lennart Nordh, plus Flight Test Engineers Sture Rodling and Anders Bergstrand.
“It was an experience of a lifetime for a young test engineer as myself. Opportunities like this are rare and I feel privileged to have been part of it,” said Anders
However, during the flight testing programme, it became clear that the aircraft had control issues.
The airflow created by the props over the horizontal stabiliser significantly impacted the mechanical elevator control system (MECS). Engineers worked around the clock, testing numerous configurations. Despite improvements, Saab remained unhappy.
Allison eventually redesigned large parts of the propellor, and certification was ultimately granted by Europe’s Joint Airworthiness Authorities and the USA’s FAA in March and April 1994, respectively.
Swiss regional carrier Crossair (LX) received its first example HB-IZC on August 30, 1994. The airline was impressed with the airliner’s performance. In a nod to the types high-speed, they renamed the 2000 ‘Concordino.’
French carrier Regional Airlines, who operated services on behalf of Air France (AF), became the second carrier to opt for the Saab 2000 when it placed an order for three in December 1994. Its first example F-GMVB arrived in June 1995, and the airline would operate a total of 13.
In March 1996, Saab announced that it was looking at developing a passenger/cargo combi version to boost flagging sales. Two basic combi configurations would be offered with 39 seats and 16.4m³ freight, or 16 passengers and a 29.6m³ aft cargo compartment. The redesign would require no additional strengthening of the Saab 2000’s floor, and the combi could use the existing rear fuselage cargo door.
However, the combi variant would never leave the drawing board. Cargo conversion of second-hand 2000s would not begin until January 2022. Swedish aircraft modification firm Taby Air Maintenance (TAM) began modifying the turboprop for Miami-based launch customer Jetstream Aviation Capital. The converted aircraft will have six loading bays in the fuselage, divided by nets, plus the original regular passengers’ cargo zones. Once completed, the Saab 2000 Cargo will have a freight volume of 55.4m³ and a maximum payload of just over 6.6 tonnes
Shortly after it entered service, the Saab 2000 was hit with dispatch reliability issues in early 1996 after a particularly harsh winter. Problems included brake icing and the ingestion of de-icing fluid by the auxiliary power unit (APU), which caused smoke in the cabin. The aircraft also suffered nuisance cockpit warnings, which have caused flights to be delayed.
The issues led Deutsche BA (DI) to suspend further deliveries. DI would hold two 2000s on order until Saab developed adequate improvements. The problems were eventually resolved, and Deutsche BA later received their final two examples.
Sales of the 2000 remained slow, so Saab took the type on a three-week sales tour of the United States. But it would be an airliner closer to home that would finally end the two-year order drought. SAS Commuter (SK) placed a firm order for four examples with options on a further two in August 1996. Deliveries commenced in February 1997, and SK put the type to use on its Swedish and Finnish routes from Arlanda, Tampere, Turku and Vaasa.
In June 1997, Saab attended the Paris Air Show at Le Bourget and unveiled a new customer support programme to boost sales. Known as CAREfree, which pulled together a comprehensive airframe rotable-repair programme, engine power by the hour and complete expendables coverage, aimed to cut direct operating costs by more than $2 million per aircraft over six years.
The highlight of the scheme was that, for the first 5,000 flight hours, or a period of two years, the programme was provided free of charge, eliminating an airline’s maintenance risks except for line labour and consumables.
The plane-maker had intended that the aircraft be the best turboprop on the market. But the aviation market had changed by the time the Saab 2000 entered service. Embraer and Canadair had introduced their regional jets, and despite their higher fuel costs, the jets proved more popular with passengers and airlines alike.
In October 1997, Saab announced that unless new orders could be secured by the end of the year, it would be forced to close down the production of both the 340 and 2000.
Speaking at the time, company President Gert Schybourg said lack of sales had caused “considerable Financial losses.” He continued: “We have not taken a firm decision, but we cannot continue to struggle forever. Manufacturing can be maintained only if there is much higher demand for our aircraft and a better return.”
Discussions took place to sell the entire 2000 line to various Asian countries, including India and China. It also looked at collaborating with Brazilian competitor Embraer, but neither venture came to fruition.
Despite an order for six more airframes from LX at the Dubai Air Show on November 19, 1997, it was not enough to save the production line. Further orders failed to materialise, and with mounting costs, Saab announced its intention to close production lines on December 24, 1997.
Sadly, only 63 of the type were ever built. This made the Saab 2000 the least popular airliner of the 20th century and one of the least popular in history.
Crossair, who became the largest operator of the type with 34 in the fleet, took the last machine to be built (HB-IYH) on April 29, 1999.
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N.B. The author does not own the rights to any of the images included in this article unless otherwise stated.
© Jet Back In Time by Lee Cross