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Regional risk-taking

Four manufacturers are forging ahead with large regional jet programmes despite market uncertainties

Andrew Doyle/MUNICH Emma Kelly/SAO JOSE DOS CAMPOS Paul Lewis/WASHINGTON DC

The battle for orders in the 70-seat and larger regional jet market is becoming a fierce one, with BAE Systems, Bombardier, Embraer and Fairchild Dornier all committed to developing new or derivative products. While few in the industry dispute that airline demand in this category is set to be strong, the manufacturers have external factors to worry about as well as competing products.

First and foremost of these is the well-known issue of US scope clauses. Recent progress by the major carriers in their negotiations with pilot unions has led to a marked easing of restrictions governing the operation of 50-seat jets, but for many carriers and their regional affiliates, 70- and 90-seaters remain off limits.

In turn, manufacturers have pinned their early sales hopes on the European market. While scope clauses are to a more limited extent an issue here too, other factors come into play.

The skies above Europe are becoming ever more congested as politicians grapple with restructuring of the continent's fragmented airspace. The manufacturers acknowledge that this could compromise regional airlines' ability to satisfy natural market demand for more point-to-point flights bypassing major hubs.

In addition, the large airlines are honing their alliance strategies, which tend to focus on developing major hubs. Meanwhile, Airbus Industrie and Boeing are attacking the regional market from above with the A318 and 717, respectively. Airbus in particular has enjoyed early success in persuading the majors to add 100-seat A318s to their mainline A320-family fleets, rather than hiving off 100-seat operations and delegating them to regional partners.

Bullish forecasts

Despite the near-term uncertainties, the regional aircraft manufacturers are making bullish forecasts about long-term demand. Fairchild Dornier, which is developing the all-new 728JET 70-seater for service entry in July 2003, predicts an available market for 2,500 aircraft in this size category over the next 20 years. Potential demand for the stretched 928JET, which will accommodate up to 100 passengers, is put at 2,200 over the same period.

Fairchild Dornier senior vice president sales and marketing Barry Eccleston believes "the early market for 70-seaters is going to be in Europe", but cautions that air traffic control (ATC)congestion threatens sales. "ATC is probably the single biggest threat to sales today, given the good economic climate," he says.

Assuming the forecast demand materialises, the airlines will have four dedicated product families to choose between, all of which have been conceived against a background of differing design philosophies.

Embraer and Fairchild have gone for clean-sheet designs, in the shape of the ERJ-170/190 and 728JET/928JET families, respectively. The most significant difference in their designs is cabin width, with the Fairchild family adopting a five-abreast layout while Embraer has settled on a narrower, four-abreast cabin.

Bombardier has opted for the cheaper option of stretching its established 50-seat Canadair Regional Jet (CRJ)Series 200 to form the 70-seat CRJ700 and recently launched CRJ900. BAE Systems has revamped its Avro RJ family with new engines, systems and airframe refinements to offer the RJX-85 and RJX-100.

Boosting credibility

Fairchild is working hard to boost its credibility in the marketplace after being forced to delay the 728JET's entry into airline service by over a year, and more recently having to cancel the already-launched 428JET. Eccleston believes the manufacturer has several strong cards up its sleeve that will convince regional carriers to embrace the 728JET, such as its significantly wider fuselage cross-section compared with the four-abreast cabins of the ERJ-170/190 and CRJ 700/900. "Cabin configuration is a key issue, and secondarily it comes down to negotiations over price," he says.

Fairchild's decision to go for a 3.25m (11.6ft) fuselage width "allowed us to do a five-abreast cabin that would duplicate the Airbus experience", says Eccleston, citing his view that passengers prefer the slightly wider fuselage the A320 offers in comparison to Boeing's 737 family. He says the five-abreast 728JET will afford each passenger the same amount of space they would encounter flying on the six-abreast A320, although he accepts the latter has a 150mm higher cabin. This, he believes, will allow regional operators to offer a "seamless" cabin product for passengers interlining with mainline services, but with much lower operating costs. At 3.4m, the BAE Systems Avro RJ models are the only regional jets with a wider fuselage than the 728JET.

Cabin width has become a battleground in the regional market, with airlines such as Crossair publicly stating that they prefer a four-abreast layout because it allows them to eliminate "middle" seats. Eccleston points out that, theoretically, no-one will have to occupy a middle seat on the 728JET until an 80%load factor has been exceeded. And, he notes, all passengers can have an empty seat next to them up to a 60% load factor on the aircraft, whereas this can be achieved only with a load factor of 50% or below on the competing four-abreast types.

One advantage the ERJ-170/190 and 728/928JET designs will have over the rear-engined CRJ models is the opportunity for "four-cornered" servicing of the aircraft on the ground, which Eccleston says should help to reduce turnaround times.

He admits that Fairchild and Embraer are "pitching around the same range curve", and that their trip costs "are pretty much the same. We should show block fuel consumption as about the same per trip." Both families, in common with the Bombardier CRJ series, use versions of the General Electric CF34 engine. He claims, however, that the 728JET and 928JET offer a "2-3%" advantage on seat costs because each can accommodate five more passengers than the ERJ-170 and -190-100.

Eccleston says other aircraft operating costs such as maintenance will be broadly similar between the 728/928JET and ERJ-170/190 families, with major systems, such as avionics, being supplied by a common manufacturer - Honeywell. "It's going to be difficult to argue over operating costs being different between ourselves and Embraer," he admits.

He says that, while aircraft operating weights are also comparable, the pair will enjoy a significant advantage over the 100-seat A318 which is substantially heavier than the 928JET or ERJ-190-200. Weight is a particularly significant issue in Europe where it has a big impact on landing charges - often the largest single cost faced by a regional airline.

Fairchild does not have 728JET delivery slots available until the third quarter of 2004, with the bulk of early production having been already bought up by Lufthansa CityLine and General Electric Capital Aviation Services (GECAS).

Pressing the advantage

Embraer followed the other manufacturers into the 70 to 110-seat market with its ERJ-170/190, but the Brazilian manufacturer has committed to an aggressive 38-month development schedule to catch up. The manufacturer aims for first deliveries of the 70-seat ERJ-170 to launch customer Crossair in the fourth quarter of 2002. Deliveries of the 108-seat ERJ-190-200 to Crossair will follow in mid-2004, while the 98-seat ERJ-190-100, available a year later, has yet to win orders.

Embraer acknowledges the strong competition in the 70 to 110-seat market, but believes it is well positioned to take on its rivals. "What makes you effective in a market is a result of several factors - quality of the product, ability to deliver, and price and operational costs," says Embraer president Mauricio Botelho.

"One of the competitors, the CRJ700, will be in the market within six months, while the ERJ-170 will be available at the end of 2002 - two-and-a-half years later," says Botelho. "Getting into the market earlier will give them [Bombardier] some advantages, but today we share the market in an equal way."

Embraer believes that its double-bubble four-abreast aircraft will be more attractive to airlines and their passengers than the competition. "Our 70-seater will be a tremendous aircraft from a passenger point of view, with a wide cabin, very comfortable four-abreast seating and the price is very low. That's how we are going to succeed in the market," says Botelho.

Fairchild Dornier launched its programme one year before Embraer, but "at this point they are planning to deliver six months after us", he says. BAE's offerings are "more expensive aircraft which cost more to operate", says Botelho, while they are also based on technology developed in the 1970s.

Embraer says that being designed from a clean sheet gives the ERJ-170/190 an advantage over other 70 to 110-seaters, which are derivatives and stretches of types that were not specifically designed for the market. "The ERJ-170 is being designed as a 70-seater aircraft, while the CRJ700 is an aircraft designed to be a 50-seater," says Botelho.

Embraer's later entry into the market does not seem to have affected its order list. For the ERJ-170, Embraer has 90 firm orders and 133 options: 30 firm and 50 options from Crossair, 10 firm and five options from Regional Airlines of France and 50 firm and 78 options from GECAS. ERJ-190 orders and options total 30 firm, from Crossair, and 72 options: 50 from Crossair and 22 from GECAS.

Comfortable design

The ERJ-170/190 are being designed for high passenger comfort, operational flexibility, short turnaround and a high degree of maintainability and commonality. They will meet future environmental requirements and are a result of extensive partnerships with operators during the design and development phase, says Luis Carlos Affonso, director of ERJ-170/190 programmes. Short turnaround will be aided by two front and two rear doors to allow simultaneous galley replenishment and passenger boarding.

Embraer has "had a lot of discussions with operators" on the aircraft design. Two advisory board meetings were held before the programme launch with more detailed activities conducted by regular steering group meetings.

The Brazilian manufacturer is maintaining its schedule for the ERJ-170, with initial and joint definition completed and the detailed design and certification phase now under way, aiming for first flight in the fourth quarter of 2001.

To help meet its aggressive schedule, Embraer is employing innovative technology, including a new virtual reality design centre, which provides designers and engineers with a three-dimensional look at the aircraft, allowing them to model airframes and aircraft systems. Described as a "key tool" to maintaining the schedule, the centre greatly reduces design and engineering time and validates the aircraft for manufacturing, maintenance and operations, as well as allowing certification authorities to gain a better understanding of the aircraft before completion, says Affonso. The manufacturer is also using a worldwide intranet to link all of its ERJ-170/190 partners to share product information, programme communication and digital mock-up replication - "another tool that's helping us gain time".

With the ERJ-170/190, Embraer is building on the success of its smaller regional jet, the ERJ-145, which has a firm order book of 526 and 317 options, of which 233 have been delivered, mainly to European operators. Embraer is having "lots of discussions" with potential customers for the new types. "There is a lot of interest; different customers with different scenarios and restrictions. We are doing the three aircraft, to best match the optimal requirements for different customers," says Affonso. Such requirements include Crossair's stringent performance demands, especially at London City Airport, with its short runway and steep approach.

The ERJ-170 will even better the performance of the ERJ-145 in some areas, he adds "The ERJ-170 is very good in fuel performance, better than the ERJ-145 or ERJ-135."

Small investment

Bombardier's recent decision to launch the CRJ900 as a C$200 million ($135 million) development represents a small risk and investment compared with the more than $1 billion required for a clean sheet design.

The manufacturer says the CRJ900 is being aimed primarily at two markets: operators of the 50-seat CRJ200 and the upcoming CRJ700 who are looking to grow upwards; and mainline carrier operators wanting to grow down.

A good example of the former is CRJ900 launch customer Brit Air, which has ordered four of the type and taken options on eight more to complement the carrier's 20 CRJ100s and the four CRJ700s on order. Bombardier views the CRJ900 as having two key advantages over the ERJ170/190 and 728JET/928JET offerings from Embraer and Fairchild.

"Europe needs a 70-80-seater today, not two years from now. Brit Air president Xavier Leclercq says his selection of a CRJ was largely driven by the CRJ700/900's availability two-and-a-half years ahead of the other product offerings," says Bombardier regional aircraft marketing vice president Trung Ngo. The CRJ700 will be certificated by the end of this year for first delivery early next year, while the CRJ900 is targeted for Transport Canada certification in the third quarter of 2002.

Crossover training

The second advantage is family commonality from 42 to 90 seats. Bombardier is expected to be granted a common crew qualification for the CRJ200 and 700 with a minimum of four days of differences training. The expectation is this will be extended to the CRJ900.

"We've been very careful in the design of the cockpit and some operating procedures to ensure that differences are minimised, and that is the single most important area of savings that airlines are aiming for," says Trung.

The main changes introduced on the CRJ700 are a strengthened wing and main landing gear and upgraded wheels and brakes, additional aft door, additional pair of overwing exits, two fuselage plugs (2.29m forward of the wing and 1.57m aft), larger underfloor baggage hold and an extra door.

A third critical edge that Bombardier has over newcomers such as Fairchild is its established base of in-service 50-seat aircraft and orders in hand for both additional CRJ200s and CRJ700s. To date firm orders for 154 CRJ700s and 14 CRJ900s have been placed. "We believe that is a very comfortable lead - the numbers speak for themselves," says Trung.

In the other major market segment, the CRJ900 is aimed at mainline operators of 100-seat aircraft including 737-200s, DC-9s and Fokker 100s that are either uneconomical or oversized for the routes they operate.

"The CRJ900 is applicable to cases where carriers are operating aircraft as big as the A319 or 737 and they are not making it work very well. An 86-seater is a good potential replacement. Its operating costs are significantly lower and it has the right capacity for the density of market that they will replace," says Trung.

The CRJ900 is unable to compete in the 90-100-plus seat market against the ERJ-190-200 or proposed 1128JET. Bombardier plans to respond with the BRJ-X, but the CRJ900 launch will forestall any decision on this programme for at least another year, when the 100-seat requirement will be better defined.

In the lead

BAE Systems, meanwhile, is already assembling the first four-engined RJX, giving it a substantial lead over the similarly-sized 928JET, ERJ-190 and CRJ900 twinjets in terms of availability. "Clearly the entry-into-service date is one of the points we are making," says BAE Regional Aircraft vice-president marketing Nick Godwin. "We believe we have a minimum three-year head start."

With several hundred examples of the Avro RJ and its predecessor the 146 already flying, the UK manufacturer has a wealth of experience in marketing large regional jets. Godwin claims that the RJX offers "comparable economics" to the competition, but with "by far the largest cabin by any standard and a field performance no other can even get close to."

The RJX can accommodate a six-abreast seating layout, though most operators have chosen to opt for a more comfortable five-abreast configuration. "I really seriously question whether the CRJ900 meets European expectations in terms of comfort," says Godwin.

Though the RJX cannot match the competing types' speed and range performance, Godwin argues that this makes the aircraft cheaper to operate on typical 830-925km (450-500nm) stage lengths and helps to keep operating weights to a minimum, reducing landing charges in Europe.

Another potential drawback is that the RJX has four engines, but "we are offering guarantees that the aircraft is no more expensive to operate than the rival offerings," says Godwin.

To maximise profitability, BAE is committed to building only 18 aircraft per year, though there is scope to increase this to 24. "We are quite happy with what the others would regard as a niche market," says Godwin. "We don't subscribe to a policy of chasing market share - all that does is lead to a collapse in the pricing that you can achieve."

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