Kenya Airways, Airlink, Egyptair and Royal Air Maroc… Embraer conquers the African sky

By Nelly Fualdes
Posted on Wednesday, 11 May 2022 11:57

EgyptAir Express Embraer ERJ-170 plane parked at Cairo International Airport in Cairo, Egypt April 18, 2019. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

Two years after the failure of its merger with Boeing, Brazilian manufacturer Embraer is redoubling its efforts to sell its sub-150 seat aircraft, which it believes are better suited to the continental market.

The air transport sector is gradually recovering in Africa: in March, passenger revenue per kilometre (PRK) on international traffic increased by 91.8% compared to last year, even if it is lower than it was in March 2019 pre-pandemic, according to figures from the International Air Transport Association. This is a definite upturn in form that manufacturers intend to seize upon to convince the continent’s operators to develop or rejuvenate their fleets.

Embraer, for example, announced in November 2021 that it had received a firm order from Nigeria’s Overland for three new E175s, as well as purchase rights for three other aircraft of the same model. The 88-seat aircraft are to be delivered from 2023. At list price and if all purchase rights are exercised, this represents a total value of $299.4m.

This is an important contract for the Brazilian manufacturer, which was dropped in April 2020 by Boeing, which was to buy 80% of its commercial aviation division, while Airbus had just taken over the CSeries programme (now marketed under the name A220) from Canadian Bombardier, Embraer’s direct competitor.

Embraer – which is involved in an arbitration procedure with Boeing over this breach of contract, the legality of which it disputes – continues to sell its E1 and E2 models under its own name.

Comparing this range to the Airbus A220, the Brazilian manufacturer says it is pleased with the E1-E2’s “superior” performance and points out that at a global level, “the E2 sold better than the A220” in 2021.

We interviewed Hussein Dabbas, Embraer’s general manager for Africa and the Middle East, on the group’s priorities and prospects on the continent.

Jeune Afrique: What does the African continent represent for Embraer?

Hussein Dabbas: Africa has a very small share of the world’s air traffic compared to its population. We believe it will become a major market because of the growth of the continent’s economies. We are doing our best to help them develop their airlines and use the right aircraft on the right routes. To date, 200 of our aircraft are flying with 50 airlines, including Kenya Airways, Airlink, Egyptair and Royal Air Maroc…

Bombardier, your main competitor in sub-150 seaters, is now partnering with Airbus to market the A220. After losing Boeing’s support, is it more difficult for you to make your mark in Africa?

Competition is a very healthy thing. We are the second-largest aircraft manufacturer operating in Africa after Boeing [as of 31 March 2022, Airbus claims 247 aircraft in operation], and we are very proud of this position.

Boeing and Airbus are very big global players. But the B737 and A320 have capacities of 160 to 180 passengers. Increasingly, African airlines are realising that they need to start with smaller routes, with more frequencies, to generate business and grow their market.

In most cases, the traffic does not justify a 180-seat aircraft. So airlines are moving to smaller aircraft, like our E1s and E2s, because they get real benefits: lower operating costs, better load factors and better revenue per seat. That’s how they create the connectivity they need to generate the traffic they want. This is the strategy that Kenya Airways, Ethiopian [Airlines] or Egyptair have successfully adopted.

Against Airbus, we’ve managed to find our market. Embraer is still very strong and we have more than 2,000 aircraft flying around the world. We would not have been able to sell so many aircraft without our considerable capabilities in terms of marketing, maintenance, support…

Post-pandemic, many African airlines are facing difficulties and have announced their intention to part with some of their aircraft. In this context, is it more difficult to sell brand-new aircraft?

The challenge is the financing of aircraft, not the need for aeroplanes. Traffic is growing in Africa. Unfortunately, for years the region has been a dumping ground for very old aircraft that other carriers want to get rid of, and which they sell to local airlines at low prices. Of course, these planes don’t last long.

But continental carriers are becoming more mature: they want a proper fleet that doesn’t require the excessive maintenance of old aircraft that have already flown a lot. As a result, there is a demand for new aeroplanes – and why not second-hand – but still recent.

Some airlines are seizing the opportunity to add more aircraft to their fleet, such as Nigeria’s Air Peace, which was the African launch airline for our E2s. It has already received five aircraft – out of a total order of 13 – and has an option on a further 17.

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