Flagging Asian sales of new regional jets could prompt Brazil’s Embraer to return its aircraft-building operations to China as it bids to fend off competition within the world superpower and elsewhere.
Embraer has been showcasing its new E2 family of jets in two Asia-Pacific tours over the last nine months, in a renewed push to stimulate sales of the smaller commercial aircraft.
The latest tour, which started in mainland China, came as its European rival Airbus was travelling the Asia-Pacific region showing off its A220 medium-range jet airliners.
The Brazilian plane manufacturer has struggled to rack up sales in growth markets like China and the wider Asia-Pacific region, and rivals, which also include Japan, have stolen business opportunities.
Guo Qing, Embraer’s vice-president of sales and marketing in China, said the company was committed to working with local industries to make plane-building in China a reality again – similar to what Boeing has done in Zhoushan near Shanghai, and as Airbus has achieved with its factory in Tianjin.
“We are looking for new opportunities but it is just about the timing, the market needs to mature enough to support the production of the sales volume,” Guo said.
Embraer produced planes in Harbin with Chinese partners until 2016. The joint venture, which began in 2002, built Embraer ERJ 145 regional commercial jets, with business aircraft following later.
Embraer started its tour in Xiamen in early July before heading to Macau. The company has since been to Manila, Seoul, Sydney and Tokyo.
Company officials identified Macau as a place to pursue E2 jet sales. The gambling hub will permit new local airlines by October 2020, ending the 25-year monopoly of Air Macau. Embraer is betting the new airlines will need to buy regional jets.
Gou said part of his Macau tour included meeting with airlines – which he did not disclose for reasons of confidentiality – and potential investors in new airlines.
Mainland China buyers so far include Tianjin Airlines, which bought two E2 planes, and the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China aircraft leasing business, which took 10 jets.
Embraer has 1,500 older E-series planes currently in service with regional airlines such as China Southern Airlines, Japan Airlines’ J-Air and Mandarin Airlines of Taiwan.
Regional jets are classed as having up to 150 seats and they are smaller than Airbus A320s and Boeing 737s.
The company received a much needed lift from Dutch airline KLM at the Paris Air Show in June though an unexpected order of up to 35 E195-E2 jets worth US$2.48 billion (HK$19.4 billion).
Boeing, the American aviation giant, is also in the process of buying a majority stake in Embraer’s commercial aircraft division.
The Sao Paulo-based manufacturer is convinced its E2 jets will be competitive, citing comfort, design and technological advances, as well as their feature of burning 25 per cent less fuel.
The Boeing-Embraer collaboration has echoes of Airbus’ purchase of Bombardier’s C-Series jet, now renamed the A220, which competes with the E2.
Airbus has won hundreds of A220 sales since taking over.
Guo said the combination of Boeing and Embraer offers a more complete product, allowing Boeing to accelerate sales of the E2 jet.
The Brazilian planemaker also appeared unconcerned by the endeavours of China’s home-grown aircraft-maker Comac.
The state-owned aerospace enterprise competes on the regional market with its ARJ jet, which seats between 90 and 105 passengers and has won sales from mainly small mainland carriers or airlines backed with Chinese investors.
Embraer insisted China's Comac was no threat, especially as it had a more diverse offering of planes with around 90, 114 and 146 seats, compared with its Chinese rival.
While the deals for Comac were a drop in the ocean, on the production side, only 13 ARJ planes had been delivered since taking its first commercial trip in 2016. Plus, there was doubt about how many of the near-300 orders would be realised.
“China is the biggest aircraft market. The market size is big enough to accommodate several suppliers. With the competition, we will be able to do better,” Guo said.
Former Bombardier Asia sales chief for commercial aircraft, Torbjorn Karlsson, now senior client partner at Korn Ferry in Singapore, said the market for regional jets in the region was all but “dead”, pointing to “non-existent” sales for the likes of Embraer.
“The regional jet market is being increasingly squeezed between increasingly capable turboprops and a smaller narrowbody,” Karlsson said.
“I don’t foresee regional jets growing in a market like China, because they will increasingly continue to rely on larger airliners and trains. The niche for regional jets is really small and you’ll see them being phased out.”