The magic button on the front instrument console, located right in the middle between both pilots in the cockpit of the Embraer E190 E2 jet, doesn’t really stand out.
It is labeled “Steep Approach” – and without it, one of the most challenging airports in the world could not be reached.
“If I hit the button it tells the fly-by-wire system that had a software upgrade that I want to do a steep approach, it wouldn’t be possible otherwise,” Mathias Kohler told AirlineRatings late last week in Zurich.
The pilot and chief of flight operations for Swiss airline Helvetic Airways was sitting in the cockpit while preparing the world’s first commercial flight of an E190 E2 into London City Airport (LCY).
“To do the approach I need full flaps and spoilers on the upper wing surface deployed at the same time, which the Steep Approach mode enables,’’ he explained.
“That enhances drag to keep the speed, as otherwise, we would get too fast.”
London City is challenging for pilots, Kohler pointed out, due to a short runway of just 1,508 meters, the fact it is surrounded by water and its location in the midst of the densely built-up area of one of the world’s biggest cities.
There are also obstacles in the flight path as well as strict noise abatement rules on approach and takeoff that require specifically modified aircraft plus specially trained pilots.
“On a normal approach, we descend at a slope of 3 degrees at 800 feet per minute and starting to descend eight miles out from touchdown,” Kohler said, noting the situation was much more condensed at LCY.
“Here we start descending only three miles out from the threshold and then have a sink rate of 1,000 to 1,200 feet a minute at an angle of 5.5 degrees.”
These procedures are not new, but the first flight on an Embraer E190 E2 was big news last week.
“This is absolutely decisive and quite special for the airport,” enthused London City chief commercial officer Richard Hill.
“The E2 will open up LCY for the first time to places further away from Western Europe that were our sole focus so far. We are optimistic an E2 could go fully loaded non-stop from London City to Rome or Moscow.”
The Embraer 190 E2 is the biggest aircraft currently in service at LCY, seating 110 passengers.
“And by the second half of 2022 we also expect the certification of the E195 E2 for London City,” said Helvetic CEO Tobias Pogorevc after his airline last week reintroduced flights from Zurich to LCY on behalf of Swiss.
The national carrier served this airport in London until April 2020 with its own Airbus A220-100 aircraft but now relies on a wet-lease operation of E2 Jets by its partner Helvetic.
The airline’s E195 E2 seats 134 passengers, a record load for London City. The heaviest aircraft to have ever been deployed here was the Airbus A318 of British Airways, flying from LCY via Shannon to New York JFK between 2009 and 2020 when the service was abandoned in the pandemic.
While both the E190 E2 and its larger sibling E195 E2 are longer than the A318, that aircraft was much heavier with a maximum takeoff weight of 68 tons vs. 56/62 tons for the two biggest E2s. The A318, in contrast, was a pure business class service with just 32 seats.
Embraer’s E-Jets have long taken the lead as the mainstay aircraft serving this special airport with its severe restriction on aircraft types that can fly here.
Historically dominated by turboprops starting with the Dash-7 and later the four-engine BAe 146s/Avro regional jets with their exceptional capabilities for short take-offs and landings.
Since 2016, when British Airways switched to Embraer, more than half of the airport’s passengers have reached LCY by Embraer E-Jets, albeit the basic E1 versions like the E170 or E175.
During the pandemic, the jets share reached 75 percent in mid-2020 and from September this year will reach 95 percent and almost 96 percent by year’s end.
Since the smaller E1s, Embraer has almost reinvented its product portfolio with the much enhanced and bigger E2 family, equipping all models with new efficient Pratt & Whitney geared turbofan engines and other enhancements.
“The E2 is 75 percent newly developed from the E1 but operationally it’s the same aircraft and we have full cockpit crew commonality,” Kohler noted.
With Helvetic now operating twelve E2s (eight 190s and four 195s) and four E1s (190s), all pilots get a five-day conversion course for the E2.
The newest iteration of the regional jet from Brazil brings new green qualities, which are of utmost importance at LCY with its strict rules.
Its fuel burn and thus CO2 emissions are 25 percent lower than on the E1 and airport CEO Hill says the E190 E2’s noise footprint is 63 percent lower than the E1.
Hill said this meant 63 percent fewer people on the ground wouldn’t even hear the aircraft — and that will increase to 65 percent once the E195 E2 comes into service.
The airport hopes other airlines such as KLM Cityhopper (which has four E195 E2s in service) will also bring them to LCY to make most of the airport’s limited capabilities.
Helvetic, having invested into its new fleet with the needs of Swiss in mind, also signaled it is open to leasing its E2 fleet to carriers other than Swiss.
And when Swiss flight LX464, operated by Helvetic on the E2 registered HB-AZG, touched down at London City last Thursday almost on time in the late afternoon, it became clear that LCY had done everything to sharpen its act.
A new taxiway has been operational since February 2021 and, for the first time since the airport opened in 1987, no more backtracking on the runway is needed, increasing the maximum number of movements per hour from 38 to 45.
Built over water are eight new aircraft stands, which will come in handy at peak hours with more, bigger E2 aircraft possibly on the ground at the same time.
“In 2019, LCY handled 5.1 million passengers, and we have a restriction to a maximum of 6.5 million passengers a year,” Hill said, noting that it could still add frequencies.