After a year living in the South Pacific, a place where you fly between islands by prop plane, my young son eyed our homebound Air New Zealand jumbo jet with some trepidation. “How can that fly?” he asked. “It’s got no propellers.” A good question and one, I think, that would confound most of the non-technically minded among us.
Once, of course, the prop plane was king. The Wright Brothers’ 1903 Wright Flyer was the first aircraft to make major use of propellers, after which they quickly became a stalwart in aviation design. But then, in the mid-20th century, along came the jet plane – and just as seaplanes became unnecessary after long runways were created during the Second World War, the slower, noisier prop plane was soon ousted in favour of the cheaper and faster jet.
But that’s not the end of the story. The jet plane may have taken over as king of the skies, relegating prop planes to a rarity in the contemporary western world, but as with so many relics of the past – steam trains perhaps chief among them – the prop plane nonetheless retains a special allure. It conjures adventure, the early days of flight, a romance and nostalgia for a time when boarding a plane was no everyday event. They may have been ousted from mainstream aviation, but they’ve retained their hold on many a traveller’s heart – and now, it seems they’re ripe for a comeback.
Certainly, my heart gave a small leap of joy when I looked out of the window of Gate 7 at Stansted Airport and saw that one awaited to fly me to the Dolomites. A prop plane from a London airport? Who had ever heard of such a thing? But there it was: bright and shiny as a new pin and rather different from the prop planes I’d come to love in the South Pacific. The propellers had much longer blades and the plane itself looked much sleeker. It was, I discovered, a De Havilland Canada DASH-8 Q-400. The “Q” stands for quiet: this new generation of prop plane has a sophisticated system designed to reduce the noise both for passengers inside the plane and, during take-off and landing, for those around the airport. A welcome development.
And it’s not just quiet, it’s fuel efficient, too, with up to 50 per cent savings in emissions compared to equivalent regional jets. Prop planes also once struggled to compete with their jet rivals in the speed stakes, but this new incarnation is just six minutes slower than a jet per hour – and you’ll likely make those minutes back on arrival, when the prop plane’s inbuilt set of steps mean no waiting around to disembark.
So convinced by the plane’s attractions is Italian airline SkyAlps, that its entire (and growing) fleet uses nothing else. It’s particularly handy for getting into their main hub, Bolzano, a pretty city nestled in the Italian Alps. For the passenger, it flies so low that you can see every village, every vineyard. Arriving at dusk, the deep valleys beneath the snow were strung with lights. It was captivating, an alpine fairyland. Meanwhile, on board, the crew served complimentary fine regional wines and artisanal snacks – a pleasant nod to the prop plane’s golden-age heyday.
The Stansted-Bolzano route is the only UK one SkyAlps have so far. They do, though, fly all over Europe from their Dolomites base, including to Antwerp, Copenhagen, Rome, Dusseldorf, Linz, Puglia, Berlin, Hamburg in winter and, come summer, there will also be Corfu, Ibiza, Catania and Cagliari, among others. And they are not alone. Croatia Airlines, Luxair and Icelandair are already flying the same aircraft, and it’s popular throughout Asia and North America, too.
Ah, I hear you say – very romantic, very nostalgic – but what does it cost? SkyAlps certainly isn’t a budget airline, but with its Stansted-Bolzano route priced from £157 one way, it looks like the prop plane option needn’t be prohibitively expensive either, particularly if other airlines follow suit and eschew sneaky add-ons.
In SkyAlps’ case, you get a carry-on bag, a free bag in the hold (15kg) and all those complimentary drinks and snacks onboard. Plus, it’s the only commercial airline using the airport in Bolzano (its tarmac neighbours are exclusively private planes), from which transfer times to the ski resorts and luxury spas of the region are short and sweet, so you save time and money there too.
So, could the prop plane be about to make a full-scale comeback at long last, bringing with it a rare taste of travel’s glorious golden age? It’s too soon to say for sure, but I certainly hope so.