The Embraer E-Jets have been a mightily successful endeavor for the Brazilian planemaker. More than 1,500 have been delivered to customers since the type launched in 1999, and with the new E2 upgrade now the flagship, the type looks set to continue its success. But perhaps the E-Jets wouldn’t have been quite so incredible were it not for the influence of Swiss airline Crossair.
Crossair was originally founded as Business Flyers Basel in 1975, but changed its name to Crossair on November 18, 1978. It began scheduled services in 1979, flying to destinations including Nuremberg, Innsbruck and Klagenfurt. It moved from Basel to Zurich in 1985, and flew a mixed fleet of Avro RJs, BAe 146s, Fairchilds, Fokkers, MDs and Saabs.
It was the largest operator of the Saab 2000, with a fleet of 32 at its peak. But its relationship with another planemaker turned out to be far more important for this Swiss airline, and for the planemaker too. That planemaker was Embraer.
Crossair ordered 25 Embraer ERJ 145s in 1999, planes that were destined to replace its Saab 340 turboprops. Although it only took delivery of 22 of the 25, three of which arrived after the company had transformed into SWISS, this order was the start of a unique relationship between the Swiss carrier and the Brazilian planemaker that has shaped the future of regional jets right through to today.
The charismatic Mauricio Botelho was brought in to save Embraer from financial ruin at the end of 1994. The company had recorded losses of $330 million on revenues of just $250 million the year before his appointment, so he had a tough job ahead of him. Although an experienced senior manager, Botelho had no experience in aviation, but perhaps that was a good thing. Speaking with CNN in 2007, he said,
“I think that one of the issues was that I didn’t have any commitments with the past or with what existed, so I was free to take my decisions based on my own judgment. And I think that was a very positive issue.”
Embraer’s first contact with Crossair was in 1996, but proved to be unfruitful. The airline was seeking to renew its fleet, and Fairchild Dornier looked to be the front runner. For Botelho, it was a case of now or never. He convinced the CEO of Crossair, Moritz Suter, to meet him for a chat. Speaking to Le Temps, Botelho described their meeting:
“In September 1998, I met Moritz Suter at the “Dreieck Restaurant” in Basel, overlooking the Rhine. We’ve talked very extensively about the regional jet market. Besides Dornier, we knew that Bombardier was preparing an extended version of its aircraft, and that others, such as ATR and British Aerospace, had plans. At the end of the meal, Moritz Suter made me understand that the deal with Dornier no longer satisfied him. I jumped into the breach.”
Developing the E-Jets
The two CEOs hit it off well. As time went on, their relationship blossomed to such an extent that Botelho was keen to take advice from Suter on the specifications of the developing E-Jets. He knew that if he could get it right, the reward would be a sizeable order from the Swiss airline, not to mention an aircraft that was practically airline-designed.
Suter fed into the choice of powerplants, the specifications for avionics and many of the nuances of the E-Jet design. Notably, Crossair insisted that the aircraft be a 2-2 layout, eliminating that pesky middle seat. This remains a key selling point of the E-Jet today.
Embraer worked its socks off to develop a plane that was perfectly suited not just to Crossair, but to all regional airlines. And at its launch at the Paris Air Show in 1999, that effort paid off, with not just one but two large orders for the new E-Jet.
The launch order came from Régional Compagnie Aérienne Européenne, a subsidiary of Air France-KLM. Swiftly following this was the expected Crossair order. Between the two airlines, this gave Embraer 30 firm orders for the E-170 and 30 for the E-190, a solid kick off for a new regional aircraft project. Botelho noted at the time what this meant for Embraer,
“It’s kind of a dream come true: Crossair is arguably the most famous regional airline in the world. This is the largest contract in the history of regional air transport, which also allows us to develop a family of planes from A to Z in partnership with suppliers and a customer, thus giving us a credible base and competence.”
The E-170 was certified in 2004, and the first were delivered to LOT Polish, Alitalia and MidAtlantic Airways. Sadly, by then, Crossair had ceased to exist, having taken over Swissair to become Swiss International Air Lines. Nevertheless, the influence of the Swiss operator remains visible in the E-Jets and the E2s of today, as does Embraer’s strong relationship with current Swiss airlines.