Amman: Embraer's becoming the third largest passenger plane manufacturer in the world, after Boeing and Airbus, was due to its focusing on specific market segments that the two other giant builders have ignored.

Embraer's bid was, however, only won after 40 years of building aircraft. While conventional manufacturers got bigger and bigger in their designs, the Brazilian builder instead focused on jets that accommodate up to 120 passengers. The aircraft, which was considered at its launch as a gamble in the world of giant carriers, has become highly demanded in different markets, including North America and Europe. Airlines wanting to expand their services to cover smaller destinations with convenient frequencies found the solution with Embraer. That niche in the market was what helped Embraer to succeed in the past five years: Proving the right sized aircraft for the right market.

The outcome of the filling-the-gap strategy adopted by Embraer was a family of four medium-sized passenger planes equipped with state-of-the-art technology and modern, luxury features that among other characteristics managed to redefine short-haul transportation in many parts of the world.

Embraer has built more than 600 planes in the E-jet family that comprises E-Jet 170, 175, 190, 195 operated by 54 airlines, including four in the Middle East.

More importantly, the E-Jet has reduced the cost of seats by up to 50 per cent. It is now cheaper to buy this aircraft and operate it than any other aircraft, especially when servicing small destinations with high frequencies.

The only possible disadvantage for passengers who are used to wide-bodied aircraft is the small cabin. Embraer argues, however, that the two-by-two seat configuration increases the overall trip comfort since E-jet offer up to 17 per cent more personal space per passenger than any other competitor aircraft. The cabin height of two metres allows more than 99 per cent of the world population to stand upright in the aisle and move freely in the plane.

Middle East potential

For many reasons, including the recent global credit crunch, Embraer is eyeing the promising Middle East region, according to Jose Luis Molina, the company vice-president for Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

Molina told Gulf News, the signs seen today suggest that the recession may be over, but there are still chances of a W shaped economic recovery. However, he said the Middle East economies were less affected by the crisis than in other parts of the world because oil revenue is still priced at reasonable levels.

"The result to this is investments in airport infrastructure in the region are very much on track and the airline industry in the region is thriving," he said.

He said the recent decrease in the amount of pre-owned aircraft available for sale in the international market is encouraging manufacturers like Embraer to be optimistic, but prices are still depressed.

"The used aircraft market has been supplying regional carriers looking for replacements of their fleets or enhancement of their passenger and cargo-carrying capabilities with low-priced planes that are ready for immediate handover," he said.

Other factors

But this is not the full picture. Molina said the concerns in today's aircraft market are not how much an aircraft will cost to buy and operate, despite these being important factors in buying a new jet. Another factor has come into the picture with the economic downturn: Focusing only on the cost per seat is unwise because flying empty seats and cancelling flights is quite risky as passengers will start to look for a different carrier.

"The answer to this problem was smaller aircraft with more frequencies that cater to the passengers' needs and with no compromises in safety and luxury," Molina said, adding that the solution came from Embraer.

In addition, he said the Embraer family of E-Jet is the right choice for extreme climates like that of the Middle East. "The aircraft have been tested in the cold regions near the Arctic circle and the heat of the deserts and proved over the recent years that they can resist tough climatic conditions. The combination of high temperatures and sand storms creates serious difficulties for aircraft operators in the region."

But Embraer proves that the reliability of its planes in the region are equal or greater than the world fleet average.

Saudi Arabian Airlines operates 15 Embraer 170s with the first delivery made four years ago. It has been doing very well on local routes stretching from Tabuk in the north to Nejran in the south. The reliability of the Embraer fleet schedule in Saudi Arabia was 99.52 per cent which means that less than five flights in 1,000 were subject to cancellations or delays greater than 15 minutes for technical reasons. The completion rate was as high as 99.93 per cent or less than one out of 1,000 flights cancelled for technical reasons.

Other members of the E-Jet family are operating on local and regional destinations. Royal Jordanian operates five Embraer 195s and two 170s to destinations as far as the Armenian capital of Yerevan. Egypt and Libya have Embraer aircraft as well with a total number reaching 50 this year covering 162 destinations.

With a range of between 2,000 and 2,400 nautical miles, the E-jet is suitable for the majority of airlines serving mid-sized markets with adequate aircraft capacity.

Molina said an example of how regional airlines were able to improve both flexibility and profitability of their operations by adding Embraer to their fleets was the Egypt Air case on Cairo-Luxor flights.

Good move

"In 2006, Egypt Air used to have only three flights a day between Cairo and Luxor in each direction. The airliner was operating Airbus 320 on the route at six , eight and 22 hours. In 2007, the airline changed its daily schedule to have seven flights per day with one Airbus 320 at 6am, one Boeing 737-500 at 7am followed by four Embraer 170 flights at 8am, noon, 5pm and 10pm. The seventh flight is serviced by Boeing 737-500 at midnight.

"Egypt Air found this combination of jets plying between the two destinations very profitable and satisfactory to the needs of its passengers. The schedule is still on for the third consecutive year," Molina said.

He said Embraer operations in the Middle East have become more reliable with four spare-parts centres in Amman, Cairo, Jeddah and Riyadh and a training centre and flight simulator in Jeddah. The training centre facilities including the simulator are opened for other Embraer clients in the region through special arrangements.

Molina announced that plans are underway to open a full service centre in the region with Dubai or Abu Dhabi amongst other options being reviewed by the manufacturer to host the facility.

Amman Soon after reaching my seat on Embraer E-Jet 195 at Amman International Airport, I asked a well-dressed Jordanian sitting next to me if he feels the plane that is getting ready to fly us the 40-minute journey to the Red Sea Port of Aqaba is safe.

I should admit that I was a bit nervous as such a trip was my first-ever experience with these kind of jets. I spent the previous day learning about the plane and the manufacturer at a day-long seminar organised by Embraer in Amman through which a group of specialised journalists were listening and discussing issues with the executives of the company and the Royal Jordanian officials using the plane.

My question to my neighbour was just a desperate way to share my concerns and calm my worries through someone who seems to have more experience than mine with such jets.

In a straightforward tone, the man replied that he trusts Jordanian pilots for their skilful handling of the aircraft and the passengers and has had no problem at all with Airbus planes. He added that he goes to Aqaba on this flight weekly and he had never met with an uncomfortable experience regarding safety in the past.

"That is exactly why I asked you this question," I said. "The plane that is going to fly us today to Aqaba is not an Airbus. It is Embraer E-jet 190 and has nothing to do with any other famous manufacturer. The plane is built in Brazil and it is one of 600 aircraft built by the manufacturer and fly all over the world. Have you ever heard about Embraer?" I asked.

My flight mate, who told me later that he works as a lawyer and owns his legal consultancy firm in the country's capital, challenged me indirectly through his strange look at me to prove my statement about the brand of the plane. I looked around for something that proved what seemed to him as a surprising declaration and quickly pulled the emergency instruction card from the seat pocket in front of me. I pointed at the name of the plane printed on top of the page in red and bold font: Embraer E-jet 190, and then relaxed back into my all-leather fancy seat. The lawyer replied: Oh my God.

First flight

A few minutes later, the pilot announced the start of the trip to Aqaba stating clearly the brand of the jet. He flew up to 18,000 feet, offering both window and aisle-seat passengers a rare chance to see the unique topography of this part of the country throughout the trip. The take-off and landing along with the time of cruise passed peacefully to an extent that the discussions between me and my fly-mate lawyer was not interrupted till the other 86 passengers stood up to disembark from the plane.

At Al Aqaba Airport and after disembarking from the jet, I noticed that the name given to plane by the Royal Jordanian was Umm Qais (the Mother of Qais), that leaves no indications about the origin of the jet and has become a part of the local scenario in Jordan.

Embraer facts

  • Established in 1969 by the government and privatised in December 1994
  • Third-largest commercial aircraft manufacturer
  • One of Brazil's top three exporters since 1999
  • 17,000 employees worldwide, 94.7 per cent of them based in Brazil
  • Annual revenue equal to Dh22.2 billion
  • Backlog orders worth of Dh73.4 billion