The usual buzz was missing but Wings India 2020 was one of the few events that braved the coronavirus outbreak that has upended social, political, sport and business calendars across the world.

The biennial aero show sees manufacturers bring their latest offerings to one of the fastest-growing aviation markets in the world. The Brazilian Embraer, too, joined the show held in mid-March, with its newest aircraft-- the E195-E2.

Also called the “Profit Hunter, Embraer sees the E2 as the missing piece in Indian skies -- a regional jet aircraft.

Is it really that one aircraft that Indian airlines need? Your writer took a tour of the new bird at Begumpet Airport in Hyderabad and also spoke to Embraer’s Vice President Asia-Pacific Cesar Pereira to get some answers.

What’s The Fuss About?

Big Boys Boeing and Airbus have orders worth billions of dollars from Indian carriers but they are for medium and long-haul aircraft.

On the short-haul, or regional routes as we know them, Franco-Italian ATR and Canadian Bombardier lead the segment with their turboprop planes.

It is this segment that Embraer, which is the third-largest producer of civil aircraft after Boeing and Airbus, is eyeing.

The E195-E2 is the largest commercial plane built by Embraer. It improves upon the basics of the E195-E1 but comes with a major performance upgrade. The company claims it's the world's most efficient single-aisle aircraft and six airlines are operating it. The plane burns 25% less fuel than the previous generation E1 and is easier to maintain.

How About Some Legroom

The aircraft can seat 100-130 passengers, depending on the class configuration. Unlike the A320 and Boeing 737, it has a 2x2 seating, doing away with the often annoying middle seat.

The 2x2 design is carried seamlessly into the business class, with both passengers having aisle access. The windows are significantly large for a regional jet, usually seen in a long-body jet like the A350. Lastly, the cabin noise is best-in-class and the overhead bins are large enough to hold a handbag that any other larger aircraft can.

What’s With The Name?

Why would a plane be called Profit Hunter? This is because the aircraft offered the lowest cost per trip, lower fuel burn and lower maintenance, said Pereira.

The Brazilian airline Azul had ordered 75 of these jets, he said. The carrier has 50 E1s in service and plans to replace as well as expand its fleet with E2s.

He said airlines with bigger planes focussed on cost per seat to maximise revenue, with E2, it would be the cost per flight.

When compared to a turboprop, the E2 is twice as fast due to the jet engines. This means more flights per day and maybe even more routes.

How About The Competition? 

Asked to compare the E195-E2 with A220 -- both the aircraft operate with the same jet engine the PW1500G-- Pereira said the Embraer burnt 10% less fuel than the Airbus jet, insisting E2 was most fuel-efficient single-aisle aircraft in the market.

Crucial equipment like the landing gear was designed to take minimum time to replace and the E2 had a longer maintenance interval, he said.

Special attention has been paid to design and engineering, to enhance efficiency. One example is the choice of the tapered wing over winglets. Tapered wings are considered better structurally and aerodynamically. They improve speed and manoeuvrability, they say. 

Currently, Star Air is the only airline operating an Embraer jet in India, and that, too, a much smaller ERJ-145LR. It operates just three of them.

India’s biggest airline IndiGo has a fleet of 220 A320 and 25 ATR-72. SpiceJet has more than 30 QHC-8s.

That didn’t deter Pereira. "It's about who will be the first one to acquire the E2 and not when,” he said.

Drawing parallels between the Indian and Brazilian markets, he said both were struggling with inadequate infrastructure and dependence on a hub network (tier 1 airport). Azul's E2 operations could be replicated in India successfully, he said.

The UDAN Route?

The Brazilian company senses an opportunity in UDAN, the government’s regional connectivity plan.

Carriers like IndiGo, SpiceJet, and TruJet have deployed turboprop aircraft on UDAN routes since the maximum subsidised seats are capped at 40.

To fly a sizable chunk of seats at a capped fare, government subsidies come in handy. Embraer is of the view that the E2 can fly higher demand point-to-point routes. The airlines would be able to deploy higher capacity on a regional route without depending on a hub network, Pereira said.

Embraer sees the E2 as a disruptor like the Boeing 787, which is smaller than jumbos like Boeing 777, Boeing 747 or the A380. The B787 opened up a string of point-to-point routes that were unfeasible with larger aircraft.

The E195-E2 can bring higher capacity, offer flexibility in network planning, and bridge the gap between a small ATR and the larger A320 or Boeing 737.

"You don't grow the market by putting more seats. You do it by putting more flights,” said Pereira.

Embraer insists the aircraft is “little maintenance”. The landing gear is customised and can be changed within hours, instead of days. It's designed to fly 10,000 hours without any heavy maintenance.

The company also says if an Indian airline were to order a plane today, it will be delivered within a year or two. After the handover, the airline can operate it for three to four years before a maintenance check is required, which will give the company five years to set up local maintenance service.

Not Tried Or Tested

But it is not that simple and straight. The company’s claims can’t be put to test, not just yet, as only a few aircraft are flying right now. Azul received its first plane in September 2019.

And then there is the price tag.

The E195-E2 has a listed price of $ 60 million. A brand new ATR 72-600 costs a little more than $ 25 million. This is the price listed by the manufacturers and the selling price varies depending on multiple factors. It's not uncommon for the selling price to be 25% to 45% lower than the listed price.

IndiGo has 25 ATR 72-600s. SpiceJet operates more than 20 Dash 8 Q400s and has ordered 40 Dash 8 Q400 NGs. These turboprops can carry 70 to 80 passengers.

Both these airlines follow the low-cost model and are always looking for ways to reduce operational costs. These aircraft normally service the North Eastern and Southern India.

As the demand is still low, airlines can't deploy larger planes. The E2 can bridge this gap, for now, but it is expensive and will be insufficient once the passenger load increases.

The Indian market is looking for more capacity addition but at lucrative rates. These airlines will simply replace a turboprop with the bigger aircraft they have been using. There is no middle ground for a regional jet.

And from an operational point of view, adding an aircraft from a completely different maker will be going against the basic principle of a low-cost carrier -- maintaining a streamlined fleet.

To conclude, the E195-E2 is simply too luxurious for India. Carriers like IndiGo have been frugal and even removed curtains from their planes because they were adding to costs. Its A320neo does not have mood lighting. The industry is looking for no-frill planes that can fly efficiently.

In a market where a difference of Rs 100 is enough for a customer to change decisions on a ticket, there's little room for added comfort.

Embraer has created a jet that offers maximum bang for the buck and keeps passenger comfort in mind. However, India is not the right market at the moment.

Facing an existential crisis due to the coronavirus outbreak, Indian carriers can’t afford to buy an aircraft from a completely different segment.