Manufacturer aims to become major player in corporate aviation with launch of two ‘game changer' aircraft

Embraer chose Washington DC, capital of the world's largest business jet market, as the place to confirm its commitment to becoming a major player in corporate aviation by launching not one, but two all-new aircraft. The as-yet-unnamed very light jet (VLJ) and light jet (LJ) offer a combination of price, comfort and performance the Brazilian manufacturer considers a "game changer" at minimum, and potentially a "category killer".

Deliveries of the $2.75 million Embraer VLJ, powered by Pratt & Whitney Canada PW617F turbo-fans, are to begin in mid-2008, followed a year later by the $6.65 million Embraer LJ, powered by P&WC PW535/4s. Together, they are aimed at a market for very light, entry-level and light jets estimated at 3,000 aircraft over the next 10 years for "traditional" owner-flown and corporate customers, with the unproven air-taxi market forecast to account for a further 2,500-3,000 aircraft if it materialises.

Capturing trade

Aiming to capture 30% of the market, Embraer will invest $235 million in development of the two aircraft, which share the same cabin cross-section and cockpit, says chief executive Mauricio Botelho. This does not include expenditure by P&WC and the yet-to-be-named avionics and systems suppliers on development of their contributions to the aircraft. But there will be no risk-sharing partners in the airframes, he adds.

The VLJ and LJ are the next steps – following on from introduction of the Legacy super mid-size derivative of its ERJ-135 regional jet – in Embraer's plan to become a major player in business aviation within 10 years, says Luis Carlos Affonso, newly created senior vice-president, corporate aviation market. The company is also looking at products above and below the Legacy to make that aircraft part of a family, he says. But Embraer's goal, beyond launching new products, is to create an "integrated solution" for business aviation that includes comprehensive training and support programmes; extensive service-centre coverage; third-party financing packages; aircraft exchange facilitation; and fixed-base operator and aircraft management partnerships. These other elements are expected to be in place by late this year.

Well known for its regional aircraft, Embraer is relatively unknown in business aviation. Affonso says the company selected the very light and light jet sectors because they are new market segments where the barriers to entry are lower, and because – in an extremely brand-loyal industry – they allow the company to start at the bottom and grow its customer base. A branding and naming effort is under way, he says, and will be unveiled later in the year.

Changing approach

Over more than a year leading up to last week's launch, Embraer conducted four advisory board meetings, four global market surveys covering 3,000 operators and tested the market with nine concept aircraft. "They had different sizes, cabin volumes and ranges," says Affonso. "We started with smaller aircraft, then decided to bring in a differentiator in comfort and performance."

The resulting aircraft are competitive with existing very light and light jets on price, but offer cabin volumes normally associated with the next size up. The Embraer LJ is slightly more expensive than the $6.4 million Cessna Citation CJ3, but offers a cabin size and performance comparable with the $8.2 million Citation Encore "mid-light" jet, says Affonso. The Embraer VLJ is priced above the competing Eclipse 500 and Citation Mustang, but offers the comfort and performance of the $4.2 million Citation CJ1 entry-level jet, he says.

In addition to comfort and performance, Affonso says design drivers for the aircraft included low operating cost, good human factors and handling qualities, and high availability and utilisation for the fractional and air-taxi markets. He cites the VLJ's straight wing, which uses an Embraer-developed aerofoil section designed to provide docile flying qualities for less experienced pilots.

Both aircraft will be certificated for single-pilot operation. The common cockpit is designed for enhanced situational awareness, Affonso says, with three large liquid-crystal displays, moving map, autopilot, vertical navigation and flight-management, traffic-avoidance and terrain-awareness systems. The selection will be between Avidyne Entegra, Garmin G1000, Honeywell Apex and L-3 SmartDeck integrated avionics.

Affonso says both aircraft are designed from the outset for high utilisation, and for routine operation at maximum payload. The VLJ will seat six occupants, including pilot, but is being designed to carry eight in an air-taxi configuration without lavatory. The LJ will seat eight or nine, including pilots. The PW617F and PW535/4 are also designed for high utilisation, says P&WC president Alain Bellemare, drawing on the engine manufacturer's experience with regional and fractional operations.

Embraer looked at the General Electric/Honda HF118 for the VLJ and the Williams International FJ33 and FJ44 for the VLJ and LJ, respectively, before selecting P&WC. The 1,615lb-thrust (7.2kN) PW617F is a scaled-up version of the Eclipse's PW610F and Mustang's PW615F, and its selection by Embraer gives the Canadian manufacturer a commanding position in the VLJ market. The 3,200lb-thrust PW535/4 is an improved version of the engine powering the Citation Encore, says Bellemare. Both powerplants have dual-channel full-authority digital engine control.

Bellemare sees a good chance buyers will opt for "power-by-the-hour" maintenance. "Fractionals have gone for by-the-hour maintenance," he says. "With corporate and owner/operator the capture rate has been good, but not that high. There is a great opportunity to change that provided we have a good value proposition. We have an opportunity to really change the approach to overall maintenance, of the airframe and engine." Affonso says Embraer is working on a "tip-to-tail" support programme, including the engine.

Design complete

Preliminary design of the VLJ is complete and the aircraft will enter the joint definition phase this month. Suppliers will be selected by the end of May, at least some of which will be on both the VLJ and LJ, and they will send engineers to Embraer's San Jose dos Campos headquarters to complete definition of the aircraft. The LJ is at an earlier stage, with preliminary design now being finalised and joint definition to begin in a few months, says Affonso.

The company is not revealing first flight dates yet, and has not disclosed maximum take-off weights of either aircraft, which will be certificated under Part 23 rules. But Affonso says gross weight for the VLJ will be "less than 10,000lb" [4,550kg], which compares with 2,560kg for the Eclipse 500 – "which is almost in a different segment", he adds.

Subassembly work on both aircraft will be performed in Embraer's Neiva plant, which has delivered more than 2,500 general-aviation aircraft, and final assembly will take place at the growing Gaviao Piexoto plant, where the company's flight-test centre and military division is located.

Botelho says the business plan is based on winning 30% of the 3,000-aircraft traditional market, a figure that includes 1,400 VLJs, but Embraer is keeping a close eye on the air-taxi opportunity.

"Our very light jet forecast is based on owner/operators migrating from heavy pistons, turboprops and older small jets," says Affonso. "The light jet may get interest from fractionals, as well as medium-sized corporations. We find the air-taxi model very interesting, and we think it can work, but we have not based our business model on that."


Source: Flight International