RAA Convention 2006: Embraer 195 approval will mark end of one era and beginning of another

 - September 19, 2006, 11:54 AM

Although it will mark the formal market introduction of the last and largest E-Jet, the scheduled July certification of the 108-seat Embraer 195 by no means signals the end of the company’s work on the series. In a way, it represents a beginning, as Embraer can now turn its full attention to building production efficiency and, more important to its customers, adding facility and reliability to the airplanes themselves.

Not that the company hasn’t already taken significant strides toward accelerating the “maturity” of the three E-Jet types already in operation. Fairly or not, the airplanes have had to contend with some unfavorable publicity from the start, when complications involving the integration of the 170’s Honeywell Epic avionics system forced more than one certification delay. More recently, JetBlue announced that lower-than-planned utilization and completion rates of its new Embraer 190s contributed to its first quarterly loss in its history.

Although JetBlue pinned most of the blame for the fourth-quarter loss on higher fuel costs, the references to the 190’s “teething pains” drew an inordinate amount of attention, at least in the estimation of Embraer executive vice president Fred Curado. “If you really listen [to] and read what they have said about the airplane, they never really blamed the aircraft for their losses,” said Curado. “Every new aircraft, of course, has a learning curve. I don’t think the 170/190 was particularly different or bad. Again, I think we had this little unfortunate coincidence. But, anyhow, what really matters is the operation is much, much better now.”

According to Curado, utility updates to the airplanes’ Honeywell Primus Epic avionics system produced most of the irritation, mainly due to false error messages. A highly sophisticated and integrated set of electronics, the Epic has proved a “challenge” to certification authorities as well, he added, producing a higher than normal level of sensitivity to safety concerns.

“It’s important to understand that the most focus so far has been on certifying the software, which was something absolutely new to the certification authorities,” said Curado. “So the concerns about integrity and safety, they really were very, very high because the level of integration of this software is unprecedented. I think as we started to use the software we have found that many of those problems are not really problems but spurious messages…If there’s any discrepancy, anything, the rule is just stop and then you have to reset the aircraft, causing a delay.”

Embraer continuously loads new avionics software in the E-Jet fleet, the next upgrade destined for certification with the 195 in July. Recent follow-on certification items for the Embraer 170 have included Category IIIa autoland, which allows the 70-seat jet to approach and land in visibility as low as 700 feet RVR. The 170 and 190 have also received certification for dual head-up displays, while the 170, 175 and 190 have all won autoland approval. By year-end Embraer expects to gain approval for 75-minute ETOPS in the 190, followed next year by Cat IIIa autoland capability. Eventually, Embraer plans to have all its E-Jets certified to Cat IIIb, which allows landing in visibility as low as 150 feet.

Despite the cost, effort and irritation that often accompanies new technology,
Embraer’s goal to reach the mainline market segment demanded a bolder design approach than it took with the ERJ line. “It’s not just a question of being fancy, it’s a question of future value of the assets,” said Curado. “Clearly the financial community has a better appetite for the E-Jets than the CRJs, with all due respect to our friends in Canada.”

At press time locked in direct competition with Bombardier’s CRJ900 for a big order from Northwest Airlines for its new Compass Airlines regional unit, the wider but shorter Embraer 175, of course, contains all the technological advantages to which Curado refers. However, whether or not Northwest thinks it will need them for a regional airline scheduled to start flying 50-seat CRJ200s next month remains a big question. Not only can Bombardier point to the commonality benefits of choosing the CRJ900, it can fairly claim that on a typical mission it will burn less fuel than the heavier Embraer jet.

Of course, Curado prefers to emphasize the less obvious but perhaps just as compelling advantages of the 175. “Putting aside all my sales pitch on comfort, technology, economy, et cetera, what they said [about fuel burn] may be true in a context,” said Curado. “I can also say some things; we can do better at this or that in certain given sets of conditions. Overall, they may have some advantages in fuel burn; yeah, they may have. We believe we have significant advantage in maintenance cost and what you can do with the aircraft in terms of markets that you can fly and the attraction of passengers. And if you talk about technology and how updated the aircraft is, there’s really no way to compare.”

Mainline Platform

Regardless of who wins the Compass tender, Curado can sleep soundly knowing that Embraer still faces little if any competition in the emerging market for 90- to 110-seat mainline airplanes. Although Bombardier has begun studying the possibility of stretching the CRJ900 and Q400 turboprop to fit up to 98 seats, even it acknowledges those platforms would not suit major airlines. In fact, unless Northwest unexpectedly finds a compelling reason to add heavier and more expensive Airbus or Boeing single-aisle products, the Embraer 190 appears a virtual shoo-in for the airline’s planned DC-9 replacement.

Using the same GE CF34-10E engines found on the 190, the Embraer 195 delivers some 200 nm less range than its smaller sibling, therefore limiting its prospects in the U.S. Scheduled for first delivery to the UK’s Flybe in August, the 195 as of press time had collected orders for 36 airplanes from three airlines, all outside North America. The 195’s latest customer, Royal Jordanian Airlines, in March ordered seven of the airplanes in a 100-seat configuration, first delivery of which it expects next March. Twelve first-class seats will each offer 42 inches of legroom, while the 88-passenger economy section allows for 33 inches of seat pitch. A discount-fare airline, Flybe ordered its 14 airplanes in a single-class, 118-seat layout, allowing for just 31 inches of seat pitch.

Although launch customer Swiss International Airlines has postponed delivery on at least three separate occasions and cut the size of its order in half, Embraer plans to send fifteen 170s to Basel in 2008 at a rate of roughly one per month, followed by the first of fifteen 195s in 2009.