‘Lula’s’ government flies new Airbus ACJ

 - February 2, 2007, 8:57 AM

In early January, after years of controversy, the Brazilian government took delivery of a new head-of-state aircraft that will be used primarily to carry President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, his cabinet members and senior officials. The $56.7 million Airbus Corporate Jetliner (ACJ), named Santos Dumont after Brazil’s aviation pioneer, is replacing a geriatric Boeing 707 nicknamed Sucatão (the Portuguese term for “big heap of scrap metal”).

Few questioned that the president needed a new airplane. Flagrantly in violation of international noise limits, the 47-year-old 707 had become some- thing of an embarrassment for the Brazilian leader.

But the purchase of a top-of-the-line, foreign-built aircraft provoked a spirited debate that revived well worn criticisms of business aviation. Critics said that the government should address the needs of the country’s poor before spending millions of dollars on a new jet. Indeed, Workers Party leader President Lula, who came from extremely humble origins and was elected more than two years ago on a pledge to improve living conditions for Brazil’s disadvantaged, quickly found himself condemned as a champagne socialist.

Nevertheless, the government has stood its ground, maintaining that the ACJ is essential for the president to function effectively on the world political stage. Before the new aircraft arrived, Lula faced a predicament that many local businesspeople face: finding the cheapest, safest and most efficient form of transportation (a mission the 707 could not readily fulfill). Of great concern to his security guards, Lula on several occasions was forced to travel on commercial flights.

The president has also used an Embraer Legacy when flying internationally, but the jet’s limited range (up to 3,250 nm with eight passengers) called for refueling stops on intercontinental flights on several occasions. The ACJ can fly nonstop up to 6,300 nm. The government is also replacing a pair of aging 737-200s in its fleet with a new Embraer 190 twinjet for shorter missions with more passengers.

Brazil’s ACJ, which made its international debut at January’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, will consume about 50 percent less fuel than the 707 and cost an estimated 71 percent less per hour to fly.

“The airplane is a tool of the trade and few can deny that President Lula needs an aircraft with international reach,” said Adalberto Febeliano, the executive vice president of ABAG, Brazil’s business aviation association.

The dispute about the new aircraft has in some ways sensitized Lula’s administration to the plight of executive aviation in the nation. “We have received a lot of positive feedback from some sectors of the administration that support executive aviation,” explained Febeliano.

A viable and more practical alternative to scheduled airline service has become increasingly important to Brazil’s business community, which has been expanding its trade horizons in recent years, exporting more to a broader range of international clients.

“As Brazilian businesspeople expand their reach, several ultra-long-range aircraft have arrived in the country,” said Febeliano. Last year Brazilian clients acquired a Boeing Business Jet, a Gulfstream G550 and a Bombardier Global Express. “We expect more of these aircraft to arrive in the future,” he added.

Still, the industry believes that more steps need to be taken to improve the business environment for executive aviation. “Executive aviation is an essential tool for businesspeople, especially those who aren’t located in major cities,” said José Eduardo Brandão, a director of OceanAir Táxi Aereo. Less than 10 percent of Brazilian airports have commercial flights, and since many airlines are struggling to become profitable that number is unlikely to increase anytime soon. “Business aviation is the only safe and efficient alternative for many people,” he concluded.

The improvements in the Brazilian economy have boosted executive aviation on all fronts. Sales of new aircraft are up and are expected to continue to climb as companies broaden their export strategies.

In the executive charter market, companies that once considered reducing the number of aircraft in their fleets are considering acquiring new aircraft. TAM Táxi Aéreo Marília, ABC Táxi Aéreo and OceanAir are all planning fleet expansions.

While the general outlook for business aviation continues to be relatively positive for this year, industry leaders caution that future growth will depend upon continued economic stability and expansion. Brazil’s economic growth is expected to reach 4 percent this year.