Embraer’s superjet: will airlines choose heaven or hell?

July 26, 2019
airlines Embraer E195-E2
The Embraer E195-E2 at Sydney Airport. Photo: Steve Creedy

Embraer’s new E195-E2 jet promises passengers a ride that could be either heaven or hell.

It could be more comfortable in the airliner’s award-winning economy cabin than in other single-aisle or even some widebody jets.

Or it could be a high density, single-class nightmare with 146 seats and a knee-crushing 28-inch seat pitch.

That choice is entirely up to the airlines but Embraer’s thoughtful design has at least given them a good platform on which to base a superior service.

The sleek jet is also cheaper to run and kinder on the environment than its predecessor.

Embraer airlines
The E195-E2 has an updated more aerodynamic fuselage. Photo: Steve Creedy

The Brazilian company, which is about to become part of US aerospace giant Boeing, has put a lot of effort into designing its latest aircraft and is currently showcasing the changes on a global tour.

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Powered by the Pratt & Whitney PW1900G geared turbofan, the E195-E2 is the biggest of a family of three E2 jets and is due to enter service with Brazil’s Azul by the end of this year.

Another member of the family, the  E190-E2,  entered service in April 2018  with Norwegian carrier Wideroe and the smaller E175-E2 is due to enter service in 2021.

The three jets have maximum seating capacities ranging from 90 to 146 seats in the 28-inch high-density, single-class layout. The E195-E2’s maximum capacity adds another 22 seats to the 124 seats the E195 could carry.

But the E195-E2 can also carry 132 passengers in an all-economy layout with a more acceptable 31-inch pitch and 120 in a two-class configuration with 12 business seats and 108 31-inch pitch economy seats.

Its range of 2600 nautical miles is 400nm more than its predecessor but less than the E190-E2’s 2850nm. Both of the bigger planes can fly farther than the E175-E2’s 2060nm.

Embraer has been making commercial aircraft since the EMB110 Bandeirante in 1968 and its first generation of E-Jets entered service in 2004.

The E2s are a significant redesign of those original planes and include upgraded avionics, a new wing, new landing gear, a new horizontal stabilizer and an updated fuselage that is more aerodynamically efficient.

The wings are designed specifically for each jet and have the highest aspect ratio of a single-aisle jet to optimize fuel burn and performance.

Embraer airlines
The wings are bespoke to each E2 aircraft. Photo: Steve Creedy

A fully enclosed wheel faring improves aerodynamics and the new design makes the undercarriage less prone to leaks and easier to maintain.

The fourth-generation fly-by-wire system allows for structural weight reduction while giving performance and safety margin improvements.

In the cockpit, the pilot ratings stay the same as the original E-Jets but there are bigger displays with a new flight management system and central maintenance computer.

The result, says Embraer, are efficiency improvements across the board and a 17.3 percent fuel burn reduction.

Much of this, about 11 percent, comes from Pratt’s GTF engines but there is almost 5 percent from the new wings and improved aerodynamics as well as about 1.5 percent from the fourth-generation fly-by-wire system.

The Brazilians see their main competitor as the Airbus 220 and, not surprisingly, say that their plane is the better option with a 10 percent better fuel burn, lower external noise levels, quieter cabins and the most efficient maintenance regime.

The maintenance interval for a basic check on an E2 is now 10,000 flight hours compared to 8500 on an A220. E2s have also been designed to make maintenance as painless as possible.

All that is great if you’re an airline but what if you’re a passenger?

Changes have been made there too.

Embraer partnered with an industrial design company Priestmangoode to design the cabin and won a Crystal Cabin Award for industrial design and visionary concepts.

A new interior retains the popular four-breast economy seating with no middle seat and a generous 18.25-inch seat width.

Embraer airlines
You can get four IATA standard wheelie bags into each overhead bin. Photo: Steve Creedy

There are new overhead lockers which means every passenger can bring and stow one IATA standard wheelie bag.

All passenger also have an individual passenger service unit, rather than a big overhead box in the middle.

Embraer Commercial Aviation Asia Pacific vice president Cesar Pereira says that splitting the personal service unit into two units is part of a push to create a feeling of individual space.

“It creates this concept of individual space but also we reduced the size so we free up space inside so we were able to increases the overhead bin sizes,’’ he told AirlineRatings during a tour of the plane.

The E195-E2 on the tour was configured in a two-class configuration featuring a new Embraer-designed and produced business class seat in a 2-2 configuration.

This replaces the 1-2 configuration in the original E-1s  but the seats have been staggered to give everyone aisle access and a window.

Embaraer Airlines
The staggered business class seats. Photo: Steve Creedy

There some give and take with this design: the seats are slightly narrower at 19.1 inches but the pitch has been increased to a respectable 54 inches compared to 37-38 inches in the E1.

The seat slides forward when it reclines so it doesn’t take space from the passenger behind it.

One advantage of the new configuration s that the seats are on the same track all the way through the cabin so airlines can easily reconfigure the plane if they want to take out business class and move to all-economy.

The windows are the biggest on a single-aisle aircraft and the bezel has been redesigned to make them seem even bigger.

Back in economy, the demonstrator was configured with different seat pitches and two types of seats — one with a headrest and one without.

The economy seat pitches ranged from a whopping 35 inches to a tight 29 inches and allowed your 197cm-tall  AirlineRatings editor to apply “the big guy test”.

Any seat above 32 inches would these days be an extra legroom seat attracting an additional charge and these were accordingly spacious.

The wider seat, extra legroom and lack of a middle seat would make this kind of economy travel a comfortable and joyous experience, particularly compared to some cramped regional jets of the past.

Embraer airlines
No middle seats here. Photo: Steve Creedy

However, I would be equally ecstatic If I were to board an E195-E2 and discover a 32-inch pitch in an ordinary economy cabin.

The slimline seats had plenty of knee space in this configuration, there was no trouble lowering the tray table, which was one of the handy split varieties that can also be used as a half table, even when the seat in front was reclined.

There was a noticeable difference between the 31-inch seat its 32-inch counterpart.  The tighter seat was more claustrophobic and there was less than a finger width of space between the front of my knees and the back of the seat.

However, this was still better than some seats I’ve encountered at this pitch and the wider seat was noticeable when someone sat next to me.

The tray table still worked and reclining the seat in front didn’t seem to eat up an unacceptable amount of space.

I could handle this on a domestic trip such as a transcontinental flight of up to five hours or a three-hour trip between Australia and New Zealand.

The 30-inch seat was tighter still with knees contacting the seat in front — this would be short trips only — and the 29-inch seat screamed: “find an alternative mode of transport”.

The tight seat pitch was not offset by the wider seat and filled me with zero enthusiasm to try a 28-inch seat pitch.

I could stand fully upright in the cabin without feeling I needed to duck. The was aided by one of the cool design features of the new overhead bins: the open doors sit flush with the ceiling and are not an obstruction.

Another nice feature is the way the armrest can be raised and sits flush with the seat to allow older people and those with disabilities easier access.

The cabin comes with the increasingly common LED lighting that allows airlines to use corporate colors or set the mood according to the time of day.

The result, according to Pereira, is an aircraft with the lowest operating costs that is also more environmentally friendly and more comfortable than any single-aisle plane on the market.

How airlines will mess with the comfort angle remains to be seen and Pereira agreed there was a variation in the way airlines configured the company’s aircraft.

He pointed to Air Kiribati, which is about to receive two E190-E2s and is introducing four classes.  Other airlines wanted a single class.

“It depends on the airline business model,” he said. “Some airlines are full-service carriers, dual-class in all fleets, like the US airlines.

“You have KLM in Europe, they are a full-service carrier on their long-haul flights but in the regional fleet they are all single class.”

Asked about airlines adding extra legroom seats, Pereira said that depended on the region.

“If you look at Europe, the trend is a 29-inch pitch, 28 in some low-cost carriers — no comfort at all in a single class,” he said.

“(There’s) no more business class in Europe, that’s a trend.

“But if you go to the US, even the low-cost carriers — JetBlue or Southwest — they have a very generous pitch. They don’t squeeze a lot.”

He said mainline US carriers effectively had three classes: business, 34-inch economy sold at a premium and 31-inch economy.

Azul in Brazil had an all-economy cabin but sold seats with more pitch at the front of the plane for about $US10 extra and passengers paid for the extra space.

In the end, he said, it was passengers and the market that defined cabin trends rather than manufacturers.

Embraer airlines
Photo: Steve Creedy

To be sure, the E195-E2’s current tour is aimed more at airlines than it is at the traveling public.

Embraer has 610 firm orders, options and commitments for the E2 family and the tour has taken in a number of different countries starting with China

Pereira said the tour of the demonstrator was intended to highlight the differences between the E1 and E2 aircraft.

He said the company had delivered more than 1500 E-Jets to date and some people could mistake the E2 as similar to the E1 rather than the brand new design it was.

He described Australia as an important market for the manufacturer with more than 100 aircraft flying there that were the same size as the E2 jets.

These included turboprops whose job could be done by the E175-E2 and jets such as the Boeing 717, Fokker 100 and BAe 146.

The Embraer executive agreed it was unclear when these aircraft would need replacing but it was part Embraer’s marketing push to promote its aircraft as the best available replacement option.

Asked about the role of the environment in aircraft replacement, he said environmental considerations were becoming more important in some regions and were driving a push towards more efficient and quieter planes.

Other aspects that drove replacement were ownership costs, fuel price and financial reasons.

But there were many variables involved and each airline was different, he said.