Brazilian Planes Soar Over U.S. Skies
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
When you fly home for the holidays, you might think you're boarding an American-made plane, perhaps a Boeing. But in fact, if you're on a short regional route, there's a good chance that you're flying a sleek, new jet made by Embraer. That's a signature company of the powerful new Brazil. And increasingly, it's making its presence known far from home.
NPR's Juan Forero has this report about the aircraft builder from its base in Sao Jose dos Campos.
(Soundbite of airplanes)
JUAN FORERO: Planes take off all the time here - newly built jets that are then delivered to airlines like U.S. Airways or Delta. This is Embraer's main factory in Brazil's richest industrial zone.
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FORERO: From here, Embraer builds its popular 190s, graceful, tubelike jetliners that hold up to 120 passengers.
And in one hangar, Embraer guide Nicolas Morell shows off a fleet of gleaming planes, freshly painted and almost ready to go.
Mr. NICOLAS MORELL: You can see aircraft from Australia sometimes. And also you can see aircraft to Canada, Mexico - well, I can talk about several countries like 10 minutes, so...
(Soundbite of laughter)
FORERO: On a recent day, the planes sport the colors of Austral from Argentina, Tianjin from China and British Airways.
Brazil, of course, is better-known for Carnaval, the beaches, its world-class soccer stars. So how did this country become a global player in the high-tech, capital intensive, risky world of airplane manufacturers?
Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst at Washington's Teal Group, says the Brazilians found a niche and went global.
Mr. RICHARD ABOULAFIA (Vice President, Aviation, Teal Group): Of all the people who tried to get into the aircraft business over the past 50 years, Embraer is pretty much the only success story. In many ways, they're a model of the modern aerospace corporation.
FORERO: Embraer started 40 years ago as a military aircraft manufacturer, state-supported. A big, bloated, money-losing company. After privatizing in 1994, Embraer targeted the biggest market - the United States and its growing need for regional planes.
Success came with the ERJ-145, a 50-seat jet. Continental Express decided to take a risk but had an unusual escape clause on its order for the aircraft.
Embraer CEO Frederico Curado says Continental Express had a legitimate concern about his company's future.
Mr. FREDERICO CURADO (CEO, Embraer): To make a long story short, 275 airplanes were acquired, not only the initial 200, but another 75. If you fly into Chicago, if you fly into Miami, if you fly into Dallas -those major hubs into Houston, Cleveland - you have a very high chance in taking a regional flight, in flying an Embraer aircraft.
FORERO: Today, Embraer has an order backlog worth $15 billion and is the third largest maker of commercial aircraft. Its newest generation of jets - the 170-190 series, carrying between 70 and 120 passengers - are flying all over the world.
In the U.S., nearly 40 percent of the planes flown by regional airlines are Embraers. In fact, Sarah Palin flew on a 190 during the 2008 presidential campaign.
Not all is rosy, though. The economic crisis has hit all plane makers hard. Curado also says Embraer faces competition from the Chinese, the Russians and Japanese - all want to build mid-sized jets, like Embraers.
Mr. CURADO: Some businessmen say, well, competition is welcome. I don't know if they are being sincere or not.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. CURADO: Competition is not that welcome.
FORERO: Richard Aboulafia, the aviation analyst, says Embraer will play to its strengths, relying on its flagship product - those streamlined 190 jets. Embraer will also expand in other areas at the same time, building military aircraft and competing in the promising business jet market now dominated by Lear, Beechcraft and Cessna.
(Soundbite of a plane)
Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)
FORERO: Aboard a brand new Phenom business jet parked in a hangar, the radio crackles and air traffic controllers talk to Embraer pilots.
Nicolas Morell then opens and closes a table in the luxurious aircraft and touts the leg room and space for business meetings.
Mr. MORELL: This is why we say this is a luxury intelligence. You can have it - all the space, all the comfort, but it was developed thinking in your productivity.
FORERO: He adds that there are orders for 600 of these jets.
Juan Forero, NPR News.
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