Biggest Embraer takes flight

 - January 29, 2007, 5:27 AM

The largest member of Embraer’s 170/190 family of single-aisle commercial jets–the 108-seat Embraer 195–took to the air for the first time on December 7 from the company’s production center in São Jose dos Campos, Brazil. The first prototype–a two-seat-row stretch of the 100-seat Embraer 190–validated systems operation and flight characteristics during its one-hour-and-56-minute mission. Embraer test pilots Glen Peach and Ricardo Noce manned the flight controls, while flight-test engineer Andre Celere monitored the onboard computers.

Perhaps the least conspicuous of the series despite being the biggest of the bunch, the 195 has not attracted a firm order since Switzerland’s Crossair played the part of launch customer for both the 70-seat Embraer 170 and 195 in 1999. Since assuming the role of Switzerland’s flag carrier in place of bankrupt Swissair, however, the airline now known as Swiss International Airlines has cut its firm order in half, to fifteen 195s and fifteen 170s, and reduced its option total from 100 to 20. It has also repeatedly delayed deliveries of its 170s until Embraer finally stopped considering the orders in its annual production rate forecast.

The circumstances surrounding Swiss have raised questions about where and with which airline the first production 195 will eventually serve. Embraer says that just as the 78-seat 175 will act as a modest growth platform for the much more popular 170, the 195 could do the same for the 100-seat 190, which has so far drawn firm orders for 155 copies. It also points out that both the 175 and 195 are basically minor variations on the baseline 170 and 190, adding that the company needs few sales of the stretched versions to recover its investment costs.

Nevertheless, when Embraer first announced its plans to build a 108-seat jet, many considered the move a chance to encroach on territory dominated by Airbus and Boeing, particularly the Boeing 717. Four-and-a-half years later that still hasn’t happened. Of course, the 717 hasn’t drawn many orders either of late, as a surplus of used single-aisle jets such as the Fokker 100, DC-9 and early-generation 737s flooded the market after 9/11. Still, given that the 195 likely won’t gain certification until late in the second quarter of next year, Embraer has time to fine-tune the airplane’s target audience and turn loose its marketing team to at least ensure a launch customer for the middle of next year.

Aside from the 717 and, ostensibly, the weak-selling Airbus A318, the Embraer 195 might also soon face competition from rival Bombardier in the form of the proposed C Series–a pair of single-aisle commercial jets with 110 to 130 seats and aimed at major and low-fare airlines. Scheduled to gain authority to offer from the Bombardier board during this quarter, the C Series could very well encroach on the upper end of Embraer’s target audience, notwithstanding the Canadian company’s dismissal of the 195 as a competitor to its slightly bigger, five-seat-abreast airplanes.

At its mtow of 111,973 pounds, the long-range version of the 195 would fly as far as 1,800 nm, giving it enough range to fly from Dallas to any point in the contiguous U.S. Bombardier has set an mtow target of 120,000 pounds for its standard-range 110- to 115-seat offering, also expected to fly some 1,800 nm. However, the Canadian company also wants to offer a long-range variant that could fly transcontinental U.S. routes–taking it well outside the 195’s sphere of influence and truly into the company of the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 series.

Powered by a pair of 20,000-pound-thrust GE CF34-10E turbofans, the Embraer 195 carries a maximum payload of 29,829 pounds and its operating costs will likely compare favorably with those of any existing 110-seat airplane in short-haul, high-frequency duty. But while Embraer advertises the benefits of no middle seat in its four-abreast cabin configuration, Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO Alan Mulally and others assert that the “tunnel effect” such a configuration produces will scare away airlines wanting an airplane to fly three- and four-hour segments.

Placing firm orders for 100, 40 and 10 airplanes, respectively, JetBlue, Air Canada and Panama’s COPA apparently don’t think passengers in the 100-seat Embraer 190 will suffer much. While some assert that another two rows of seats in the 195 will exacerbate the so-called tunnel effect, Embraer argues that cost benefits far outweigh any such subjective considerations. Of course, no one will know unless the market for new 110- to 120-seat airplanes develops as originally expected. Until then, the arguments amount to little more than an exercise in rhetoric.