Talk about contrasts. Last week I rolled out of bed in Austin, hopped in my Toyota, experienced no sudden unintended acceleration—it’s a Corolla, any acceleration at all is welcome—and drove a couple of miles to visit with the folks at Redbird Flight Simulations to check out their innovative and cost-effective full-motion flight simulators.
This morning I rolled out of bed deep in the Amazonian jungle; okay, I’m actually in a nice Euro style hotel in downtown San Jose dos Campos, near the factory of Embraer Aircraft, the fourth largest airplane maker in the world. And it’s here that I find myself learning a lot of lessons about how the free market system works, and it’s pretty inspiring stuff.
As you probably know, Embraer has been making airplanes for 40 years. They’re best known for their highly regarded regional airliners, but they also build military and agricultural aircraft. And bizjets.
Embraer started making bizjets back only a few years back, and at first it was with the Legacy, a converted RJ that did a lot of things that large-bodied bizjets like Challengers and Falcons did but for a couple of million dollars less. It was, unexpectedly, a big hit. Since that time, Embraer has launched another big bizjet, the long-range, very large-body Lineage 1000, based on the company’s 100-passenger 190 airliner. But the thing you’ve probably heard about is the Phenom 100, an entry-level jet (don’t use the “VLJ” word around here) that is selling like gangbusters.
It also recently certified the Phenom 300, which is not, as many seem to think, a stretched Phenom 100, but an all-new airplane in its own right. Embraer also has in the works a pair of clean-sheet mid-sized airplanes, the Legacy 450 and 500.
The remarkable thing about these airplanes is not that they exist--any big company with sufficient resources and expertise can jump into the bizjet fray—but that they are remarkably innovative. The Phenoms, for instance, have Garmin glass, because, says Embraer, Garmin would give them what they wanted, landscape format large displays that would show a lot of info, like synthetic vision. (For the record, Collins has come around with its very cool Fusion avionics package, which will go in the midsized airplanes.) The Garmin panel is so spare and so well thought out that I think it’s going to be a fairly easy transition from my Cirrus into the 450-knot Phenom 300. I’ll tell you soon just how easy it is.
The Phenom 300 is an entry level jet, costing around $8.1 million, and it boasts on top of its way-cool Garmin glass, such features as brake-by-wire, a computerized braking system that allows advanced “laws” in much the same way as fly-by-wire does. There’s also FADEC, so the pilot simply puts the power levers in the detents, and away we go. And there’s much, much more.
There’s a lot of money to be made with business airplanes, whereas the light GA sector is a lot riskier. Embraer has shown no interest yet in getting into the ring with Cirrus and Cessna, but if it did, I think we’d see much of the same kind of price pressure as Embraer has put on various bizjet segments by putting a lot of cool features in a product that costs considerably less.
That was Cirrus’s idea at first, though the prices of the SR22, for instance, grew quickly, to the point that it is a $600,000 airplane. Same with the Cessna, nee Columbia, 350 and 400. (I still think the SR20 is an underappreciated transportation airplane.)
And I’ve heard a lot of people worry that we were going to start seeing Chinese airplanes show up on our shores. We might. Though I’m guessing that a lot of these new airplanes will be from places slightly less exotic, like Brazil, or, who knows, Tennessee. I’m not particularly worried about safety. The FAA’s job is to make sure these airplanes are safe, and they’re very good at that job.
I say, bring it on. There’s room in the world for good airplanes that cost less, and when there’s money to be made, somebody is going to take a shot at it.