Brazil’s aircraft maker Embraer’s smaller capacity jets, carrying between 70 and 120 passengers has virtually revolutionised regional air travel in Latin America. It has now set its sights firmly on Africa.
The prevailing trend for airlines acquiring new aircraft to add to their fleets has been to go for the biggest and the ones that can fly the furthest that can afford. The logic is that with bigger aircraft, you carry many more passengers at one go without stretching support structures and therefore can expect more income.
While this logic is perfectly correct for intercontinental flights or to connect major cities, not everybody wants to fly long distance and the number of people who might want to fly shorter point-to-point destinations is not large enough to justify a big aircraft. The rather unsatisfactory solution has been to establish multi-stop flights for the exercise to make economic sense.
While the more developed markets of Europe and North America have been catering to this ‘capacity gap’ with fleets of smaller aircraft, the concept has been slow in coming to Africa. But all this is now changing and the revolution is being led by the Brazilian maker Embraer.
“This new generation of jet aircraft, with 70-120 seats, is driving unprecedented growth in air travel, particularly in Latin America,” says Mathieu Duquesnoy, Embraer’s vice-President, Airline Market for the Middle East and Africa.
“The success of Embraer’s family of 70 to 120-seat E-Jets is leading the growth on that continent with airlines that are establishing new nonstop flights and making air travel more affordable to an entire segment of the population that rarely or never travelled before. And what is happening in Latin America is about to take off in Africa, too.”
“What is particularly remarkable,” he adds “is that the aircraft for that capacity segment didn’t really exist a decade ago. Embraer ‘tapped the gap’ and it did so in a very short time, selling over 1,000 planes seven years after its first new plane entered revenue service with LOT Polish Airlines.”
He says that in Africa, the mindset fixated on larger craft is changing, and for the better. “As in Latin America, there is a movement among the more progressive African carriers to eliminate multi-stop flights and fly more point-to-point services. Airlines are becoming more marketing-oriented, scheduling their planes when passengers want to fly, not when it is operationally feasible for the carrier.” He attributes this to the introduction of smaller-capacity aircraft that are better able to match seat capacity to true market size. The result is fewer empty seats, higher load factors, more efficient deployment of planes and a healthier bottom line.
Solving excess capacity dilemma
“Our analysis,” he points out, “shows there is still tremendous potential in Africa. Ninety per cent of all scheduled airline flights around the continent depart with fewer than 110 passengers. The dominance of large jets means that there is a significant amount of excess capacity. Those empty seats waste fuel, depress ticket prices, produce high operating costs and low profitability.”
But he pays tribute to one African carrier. “Few African carriers have embraced the concept of developing network connectivity to secondary cities as boldly as Kenya Airways,” he says.
The airline acquired its first E-Jet in 2007 and has since grown the fleet to 10 aircraft. Another 26 E-Jets are on its order book with six to be delivered this year. Those new planes will help KQ achieve its objective of serving every African capital by 2013.
The airline’s growth target is ambitious yet its fleet strategy represents a plan to add capacity in carefully controlled increments to build multiple daily frequencies.
The expansion is already under way with nonstops to new markets. The most recent addition is double-daily nonstop flights with 72-seat E-Jets between Nairobi and Juba in the newly-created nation of South Sudan. Embraer E-Jets account for nearly one third of all KQ departures to 15 countries in Africa. Despite their smaller capacity compared to a Boeing 737 or Airbus A320, it’s a misnomer to refer to E-Jets as regional aircraft. “Operators around the world have discovered the tremendous versatility of the family of aeroplanes to work in a variety of business applications. Low fare, low-cost airlines in North America, South America and Europe employ E-Jets to bring affordable air travel to secondary markets and to entirely new segments of the population that never flew before,” says Duquesnoy.
Smaller jets can bring tremendous benefits to airlines and the communities they serve. Airlines are able to redeploy their larger jets to markets that have the traffic volumes that make them more profitable.
“The opportunities for airlines here are identical to those in other countries in which E-Jets have already transformed air travel,” he says.
“Carriers like Kenya Airways, Air Nigeria and LAM Airlines of Mozambique are bringing more connectivity to their networks and more choices for passengers to go where they want, when they want. I firmly believe that with smaller planes, Africans will start to see a more connected continent. It’s just a matter of time.”