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Old 07-01-2005, 07:27 AM   #1  
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Default New Embraer Jet Wins Raves


New Embraer Jet Wins Raves

Combination of Full-Size Cabin, Small Jet
Promises Happier Trips for Travelers
June 30, 2005 4:51 p.m.

Passengers notice changes in airline comfort, both when airplanes improve and when airlines squeeze. Already, some readers have been wowed by a very recent change.

This week's Middle Seat looked at two promising developments in passenger comfort -- game-changing designs that will make traveler better for all of us. I focused on two planes that I think will raise the bar and change passenger expectations. One airplane still on the drawing boards -- Boeing's 787 -- promises improvements in cabin comfort through more humidity and lower air pressure. The other airplane is already delivering improvement.

The new line of regional jets from Brazil's Embraer basically have a full-size cabin in a small jet -- a major upgrade over the scaled-down confines of most of today's commuter jets. I was impressed with the two-by-two seating -- no middle seats -- as well as the legroom and headroom. I stood next to a 6-foot-7 Embraer official in the aisle, and quickly snapped a picture of him since he didn't have to duck -- see the column for proof.

A few dozen Embraer 170s are already flying with commuter affiliates of USAir and United Airlines. More are coming: JetBlue Airways has ordered 100 of the 100-passenger Embraer 190. Those planes have the potential to really change things, bringing cheap, comfortable travel to lots of smaller cities.

Passengers, it seems, can't wait. (As always, letters have been edited)

Jeffrey J. Miller: "I guess I've been one of the lucky few to have an opportunity to travel on one of those Embraer 170s that USAir flies. I can say without a doubt that that plane, and I'd hope the siblings you discussed, markedly changed my flying experience on one of those 'regional' jets. The models it replaced were some of the worst to fly: no legroom no matter where you sat and hardly any distance between seats, making it difficult to even navigate a newspaper, let alone set up anything but the smallest laptop. But with the new 170 the ride is entirely comfortable. Indeed, I've described the plane to my colleagues as the equivalent of first-class seating -- at least in terms of seat width, legroom, comfort, etc. -- throughout the entire cabin."

Ron Fleischer: "Over the weekend I flew a US Airways Embraer 170 for the first time. Having been on most of the regional jets that the airlines fly, I can say that the 170 is not only far superior to them, but also to many of the smaller 'big' planes out there. Our return was on a 319 and while I did not have a tape measure handy, there appeared to be more seat pitch on the 170 and overall, a far more comfortable ride. Add in roomier overhead bins (compared with other regional jets) and a cabin I could stand in (I'm 6'4") and this plane lives up to the hype."

Jenifer Knox: "Thanks for writing about this plane. I used to be a 'no way am I flying a commuter jet' traveler, but in order to get anywhere these days I had to change my ways. I actually enjoyed my United flight recently on a new Embraer plane; I believe it was the 170. It was very spacious -- more so than a traditional 3 & 3 configuration on a larger jet. I hope that they get more publicity so airlines will realize this helps keep customers happy."

John Parsons: "I can't wait to see the new regional jets, since that's all we have serving Shreveport Regional airport. The question is, Since the airlines have bought so many of the old-style regional jets in the last three years, how long will it be before they start investing in enough new ones that the average traveler in small Midwest airports will see one?''

The answer is that they will be slow in coming, though I think the JetBlue purchase will advance adoption of these planes significantly.

In the past, major airlines have been sharply constrained in small jets by "scope clauses" in their pilot contracts. Airlines have insisted on using cheaper commuter lines for small-plane service, and pilot unions wanted to limit how much of their work could be farmed out to other carriers. At many airlines, the size of regional jets was capped, typically at around 50 seats, and the number of regional jets and turboprops also was restricted.

The financial crisis of the last few years has greatly eliminated or reduced scope-clause restrictions, creating a somewhat bigger market for the Embraer planes, which run from 70 to 118 seats.

In addition, these planes are more economical than previous 100-seat efforts such as the DC-9, Boeing's 737-500 and 717, the Airbus A318 and the Fokker 100. Some airlines may find the 100-seat version appealing for their mainline operations -- that's what JetBlue has done. And JetBlue's order shows that discount airlines can fly regional jets -- Flybe, a United Kingdom budget airline, has ordered 14 of the 118-seat Embraer 195.

I think you'll see more discounters buying small jets that don't have the stigma of small confines, and I think you'll see more network carriers get into the game, both to bump up capacity in markets served by 50-seat planes and trim back capacity in markets that have a hard time supporting a 130-passenger plane such as a 737 or an A320.

Have a question about air travel or the airline industry? Write to me at [email protected].

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