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Last Updated: Tuesday, 6 December 2005, 23:32 GMT
Embraer shows Brazil's aviation flair
By Robert Plummer
BBC News business reporter in Sao Jose dos Campos

Embraer 190 plane in livery of Copa Airways (Photo: Embraer)
Panama's Copa is the latest airline to fly Brazil's newest plane

Brazilians rarely need opportunities to have their passions stirred up, but one topic certain to inflame them is the question of who invented the aeroplane.

While most people would name the US-born Wright brothers, Brazil hails its own pioneer, Alberto Santos Dumont, as the true "father of aviation".

Wilbur and Orville Wright are credited with having made the first proper flight in North Carolina in December 1903, while Brazilian-born, French-educated Mr Santos Dumont set the first European aviation record in Paris nearly three years later.

Nonetheless, many Brazilians dispute the Wright brothers' achievement, preferring to believe that their more colourful and dashing countryman is the one who really deserves the accolade.

Whatever the truth of the matter, Brazil now has another aviation success to be proud of.

"Today, we are one of the major forces in the commercial airline market," says Embraer's company president, Mauricio Botelho, as he proudly shows off a scale model of the new Embraer 190 jet plane, the largest yet produced in Brazil.

Regional dominance

Since its privatisation at the end of 1994, the Embraer aircraft firm has grown from humble beginnings as a former military side-project to become one of Brazil's top companies. For three years running from 1999 to 2001, it was the country's biggest exporter.

Santos Dumont

While Boeing and Airbus fight for supremacy in the production of long-haul jumbo and superjumbo jets, Embraer is now a world leader in what is known as the regional jet market, manufacturing medium-sized planes that seat up to 110 passengers.

Since August 1995, Embraer has delivered nearly 850 of its most successful plane to date, the 50-seat ERJ-145, to 53 airlines in 24 countries.

In September, the company delivered the first of its new Embraer 190 aircraft to US low-cost carrier JetBlue.

In all, 177 firm orders have been placed for the new aircraft, which can fly up to 4,260km (2,660 miles) without refuelling - enough to get from Sao Paulo to Manaus, from Madrid to Moscow or from New York to Salt Lake City.

Last year, Embraer's net income was its best ever at 1,256m Brazilian reais ($562m; 326m), 114% up on its results for 2003, although the recent strength of the Brazilian currency looks set to squeeze profits this year.

Also last year, according to Embraer, it assumed the leadership of the global 70 to 110-seat jet market with a 34% market share - although such figures are likely to be disputed by its bitter Canadian rival, Bombardier.

Wartime

It's all a far cry from the origins of the company, which go all the way back to Brazil's largely unsung participation in World War II on the side of the Allies.

After Brazil declared war on Germany and Italy in August 1942, an expeditionary force, including infantry units and 500 members of the fledgling Brazilian Air Force, took part in the fight to liberate southern Italy.

"After that conflict, the Brazilian government understood the importance of the air force," Mr Botelho said in an interview with the BBC News website.

Embraer President Mauricio Botelho
Mauricio Botelho has been boss of Embraer since 1995

"Looking also at our geographical dimensions, the Brazilian territory is so wide and so vast that they understood it would be important for Brazil to have our own capability for conceiving, designing and manufacturing aircraft."

To that end, in 1946 the government set up an aerospace technical centre in the city of Sao Jose dos Campos, 95km (60 miles) from Sao Paulo.

Following a series of experimental programmes, the centre came up with the Bandeirante turboprop plane. Embraer was then formed, in 1969, in order to build the Bandeirante and other aircraft developed at the technical centre.

Assembly

More than 35 years later, the company still occupies the same sprawling industrial complex. In one vast hangar, a host of different planes are being built simultaneously, as workers piece together sections making up the fuselage - or as they call it, the "charuto" (cigar).

Once the nose-cone and tail-cone have been added, the fuselage is wheeled across on a huge gantry to the paint shop - another giant hangar - where it is decked out in the livery of the airline that will be buying it.

Nose-cone of plane being built at Embraer's factory in Sao Jose dos Campos
Production lines have been replaced by docks for the newer jets

After that, it goes to yet another hangar for final assembly. There, the wings and tailfin are added, as are the interior and all the instrumentation and navigation systems - including 40km (25 miles) of electric cables in each plane.

Many of the parts have been manufactured by partner-suppliers around the world and transported by sea and road - though not by air, as this would prove too expensive.

One jet destined for Saudi Arabian Airways is waiting to have its passenger seating put in, although the cockpit already looks airworthy.

Further along, an Air Canada plane is ready to begin undergoing the rigorous checks and inspections that are required before an aircraft can be authorised for flight.

Transformation

All this activity represents an impressive turnaround for Embraer, which was practically on the ropes and mired in financial crisis before the Brazilian government decided to sell it off in 1994.

"Being a state-owned company, it was subjected to so many procedures and practices that stopped it reacting fast to what happened in the market," says Mr Botelho.

Embraer's EMB 145 Airborne Early Warning and Control military jet (Photo: Embraer)
Planes like this are used for military surveillance of the Amazon

"But from 1995, we succeeded in merging an industrial culture that had been developed over decades with a new entrepreneurial philosophy and culture. As a result, we were able to transform the company into what it is today."

Mr Botelho believes Embraer has an important role in showing the world "another, sophisticated face of Brazil - not only football or carnival or beautiful beaches, but presenting something else that is present in the country, which is highly-qualified people and a good business environment".

But although Embraer is no longer in state hands, the Brazilian government still has a role to play. It continues to hold a "golden share" of 0.8%, which gives it the right to stop foreign firms gaining a majority stake in the company.

The reason? Embraer still produces military aircraft, including those operated by the Brazilian Air Force in its Amazon rainforest surveillance system, Sivam.

But Embraer is nevertheless more than a military-strategic asset; rather, it is a Brazilian hi-tech success story - and the Brazilian government is keen to make sure it stays that way.


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