Could we see Embraer offer its military C-390 “Millennium” cargo plane to commercial cargo airlines? Is there a market for such a plane?
At the moment, Embraer is the third biggest commercial aircraft manufacturer. It is making the E2-series twin-jet family, plus the older first-generation E175. Plenty of E135/140/145 regional airlines are in service, too – and will be for some time to come. The manufacturer is also making several other successful designs for private/corporate use, for the military, and for agricultural users. And as we’ve seen, it is planning a new-generation turboprop aircraft.
But the biggest aircraft that Embraer makes, is the C-390, and the air-refuelling version, the KC-390. This is a twin-engined military cargo jet, that Embraer hopes will replace the Lockheed C-130 turboprop. The C-390 has been in the news lately because the plane’s launch customer, the Brazilian Air Force, wants to reduce its order. Previously, the agreement was that the Air Force would buy 28 of these cargo planes.
Under the new agreement, Embraer will make 22 C-390 and KC-390 models for its launch customer. This is a blow to the manufacturer, but not quite as big as it could have been. Some months ago, the Brazilian Air Force said it would only get 15 of these planes. Embraer has since had some encouraging commercial sales. But such a reduction could have been seriously damaging, for the manufacturer.
A Commercial Embraer C-390 – NOT A New Idea
But already back a few months ago, analysts believed that Embraer could recover by selling its C-390 to commercial operators. Back when it launched this program, Embraer had plans for such a variant. In the meantime, Embraer started discussing a tie-up with Boeing, that would also involve the C-390/KC-390. Boeing would take charge of the promotion of the plane to foreign customers.
The Boeing deal fell through, but some valuable work had gone ahead already. Embraer actually obtained a civil certification for the C-390. The plane makes use of many COTS (commercial off-the-shelf) systems and components. Its engines, for instance, are IAE V2500s. These efficient and ubiquitous engines already hang from the wings of many Airbus A320-family aircraft. The C-390 is actually close in size to the A320 and 737, and a tad bigger than the four-engined C-130.
So, what commercial customers might want a “civilianized” Embraer C-390? As we’ve discussed in previous articles, military cargo planes are rather “overbuilt” for most commercial roles. But not for all such roles. There are some parts of the world where cargo planes need to operate from rough, unpaved strips. Or in arctic environments, or both.
Also, such planes may need to fly oversized items, that don’t fit easily through the doors of most cargo planes. Think of snowmobiles, or off-road cars and trucks, up in Canada and Alaska. We have seen that some really old planes remain in service in some parts of the world, simply because nothing new will serve in their role. Sometimes, that “role” is simply (?) big wheels and a large cargo door!
Niche Or Mainstream?
The Embraer C-390 could certainly fulfil such niche roles. But how niche are these roles, really? There is a precedent here, with the C-130. From very early on, Lockheed made a civilian version of this plane, which it calls the L-100. The latest version of this plane is still on offer today, too. Embraer boasts that its twin-jet C-390 is more efficient – and faster. But it can still operate from short, rough fields.
Way back some decades ago, airlines like Delta and American actually flew L-100 Hercules planes commercially. Arguably, better runways even in remote places made these planes redundant, at least in the lower 48 States. But the same isn’t necessarily true everywhere. The question is, how expensive would it be for Embraer to develop a “civilian” C-390?
As with many things in aviation, the answer is probably “it depends”. The Brazilian manufacturer actually planned a longer version of the plane, for civil and military use. Productionizing such a variant of the C-390 would certainly require some investment from Embraer. And even if it simply offered the current version, it would very likely need some modifications. For example, Embraer may want to fit a cargo floor better suited to commercial standards, rather than military.
Then there’s cost. Would operators of rugged cargo planes in Canada, Alaska or Antarctica be able to afford this plane? Who else might want this aircraft – and at what price? An oversize cargo freighter with a rear door and ramp would certainly interest more operators, but how many? This is a riddle that Embraer needs to solve.