Pilatus PC-12 in Mount Rushmore
Pilatus's PC-12 helped to launch the modern turboprop era.

Separating Turboprops’ Performance from Perception

These aircraft may not garner as much attention as business jets, but they hold their value better and cost less to operate.

Turboprops have long been an “also” category of preowned aircraft, an afterthought compared with business jets, whose transaction figures dwarf theirs in volume and value. Surely the glamour of the jets and their association with masters of the universe, in contrast with the dowdy utility work to which turboprops are often consigned, plays a role in such perceptions. And range- and performance-wise, the capabilities of turboprops end where those of business jets begin.

Yet general aviation turboprops have traditionally held their value better than business jets and are more fuel efficient and less costly to operate and maintain. Moreover, for many private and business travelers, 1,000-plus nm (the lower end of today’s turboprops’ range) is more than enough for most missions. And for whatever ignominy turboprop buyers suffer from the cold glare of jet-owning counterparts, they are more than recompensed by the payback at the fuel pump, during maintenance events, and when they sell the aircraft.

But more than the choice of powerplants and spend level distinguishes turboprop and turbine buyers: turboprop shoppers include a sizable contingent of well-heeled pilots intending to fly their own aircraft, which fuels a healthy portion of overall turboprop transactions.

Though the first business jets (the Dassault Falcon 20 and Lockheed JetStar, for example) and the first business turboprops (Beechcraft King Air) debuted contemporaneously in the early 1960s, the modern turboprop era didn’t begin until almost 30 years later, with the introduction of the executive single-engine turboprop (SET). The TBM 700 from Socata (now Daher) and Pilatus’s PC-12 launched the new turboprop age, coming to market in 1990 and 1994, respectively. True, the Cessna 208 Caravan SET entered service before the TBM, but the Caravan is a fixed-gear utility aircraft, not the high-end transport that would prove so appealing to the market. (Cessna introduced the Grand Caravan in 1990, offering optional executive interiors installed by third parties.)

At first, SETs’ market viability was far from universally accepted. Naysayers saw powerplant redundancy as a mandatory design requirement for any executive aircraft. That’s easy for a multi-engine pilot to opine, but for many piston-single operators, the leap in dependability from one piston to one turboprop engine was the game changer; a second engine was belts and suspenders, even before the added costs and complexity were factored in. 

Easy Upgrades for Pilot Buyers

For pilot buyers coming from the piston fleet, the step up is relatively easy, given that low-end operating speeds of SETs are similar to those of high-performance singles. And the lower rates for insuring a single- versus a multi-engine aircraft—even accounting for hull-value differences—belies the notion of safety in numbers when it comes to engine count. Meanwhile, SETs’ use in fractional and charter fleets—PlaneSense built its successful fractional program around the PC-12—ensures that buyers who want a professionally flown aircraft can find experienced crews.

The executive SET transformed the turboprop category, though it would take some time to be fully felt in the aftermarket. Previously, graduating from piston to turboprop also required multi-engine capability. The Piper Cheyenne, Mitsubishi MU-2, Aero Commander, and King Air variants that comprised the turboprop fleet were all twins. Certainly, some piston owner pilots could handle the increased complexity, some the increased cost, but as the market showed, few aircraft shoppers were willing to handle both. 

Meanwhile, a new generation of twin turboprops—including the Cessna Conquest, Piaggio P180, and Beechcraft Starship—had joined the fleet but failed to generate great demand among buyers. (Beechcraft also introduced the still-popular King Air 350 in 1990.) 

Even without SETs, it’s doubtful the new twin models would have gained significant sales from the owner-flown community; the latter’s purchases are largely additive to the multi-engine market’s.

Appealing Price Points

As the new century dawned, Piper joined the turbo trend, putting a Pratt & Whitney PT-6—the engine powering all the aforementioned SETs—on its PA-46 M-class airframe and creating the M500 and M600. Certified in 2000 and 2016, respectively, these models offered turboprop performance at new entry-level price points. 

The Quest Kodiak utility SET, introduced in 2007, was designed for missionary work in remote locations—a far cry from hauling executives, but Daher saw an opportunity to expand its SET offerings with the platform and bought the U.S. company in 2019. In addition to simple utility models, Daher sells a Kodiak 100 Executive Edition with an upscale interior package. 

It took some years before the SETs could muscle their way in among the King Airs, Conquests, Cheyennes, and MU-2s and have their impact felt in the preowned market. Daher built its 1,000th TBM in 2020, while Pilatus completed its 1,800th PC-12 in 2021. 

In the interim, manufacturers continued upgrading the SETs. Daher advanced from the 700- to the 850- and now 900-series models (it introduced the latest, the 960, last year); Pilatus matured the PC-12 into the PC-12NG, and now the PC-12NGX. The patriarch of the turboprop clan, the King Air, has also been upgraded, with the 350i now its flagship. 

As many of the upgrades featured in new models are retrofittable, the preowned market includes older models that have been upgraded with modern avionics and interior amenities. Even vintage King Airs that predate the SET era typically have flight-management systems such as the Universal UNS-1L, Garmin GTN 750, or Collins FMS-3000.

Additionally, today’s turboprops can be outfitted with high-speed Wi-Fi, thanks to new-generation antennas and connectivity services, so turboprop passengers and crews can be just as connected as travelers on a large-cabin jet.

All this helps explain why turboprop aircraft tend to maintain value better than business jets, if not why they don’t get the respect accorded to their turbine peers. Over the last five years, top executive turboprops including the PC-12, King Air 350 and 250, and Cessna Caravan have generally retained 70 to 80 percent or more of their original values, according to aircraft value tracking services. That compares with value-retention rates in the range of 50 to 70 percent for the jets that best held their value, which include the Gulfstream G550, Dassault Falcon 7X, and Bombardier Global 6000.