David Neeleman on Azul’s Decision to Use Embraers and ATR Turboprops (Across the Aisle, Part 2)

Welcome back for part two of my talk with David Neeleman, founder of JetBlue and now current founder and CEO of Azul in Brazil. Yesterday in part one, we talked about starting up an airline in fast-growing Brazil, and some of the challenges involved. Today the focus is on the airline’s fleet choices. It opted to start with the smaller Embraer 190/195 aircraft and has now just announced an order for ATR turboprops. This is different from what JetBlue did, and the rationale behind it makes a lot of sense. (You can see part 3 on his thoughts on JetBlue here.) Let’s continue.


Cranky: I’m curious about the fleet choice. You started with the Embraers. I assume it was a conscious decision to go with a smaller gauge than you started with at JetBlue?
David Neeleman, CEO Azul Airlines: Yeah, we have our competitors down there, Gol and TAM. Between the two of them they have over 200, which doesn’t seem like a lot, but they have a lot of narrowbodies. Gol flies mainly 737s, mostly 800s with 185 seats in them. TAM has Airbus 319s, 320s, and 321s, so that kind of Across the Aisle from David Neelemanmarket was being served in a lot of big markets. And we couldn’t get in to the big, the filet mignon, they call it, Conghonas in São Paulo, so we thought well, what’s the best strategy? It was to go between cities with no nonstop service.

Of the 22 markets we fly, in 16 we’re the only nonstop. And the others, with one exception, we’re the market leader. The interesting thing about the Embraer 195 is that our trip cost is about 35 to 40% less than those guys are. So that means you can actually be making 15% to 20% on a market and they could be losing 20%. We have higher RASM [measure of unit revenue] than they do. Even though our average fares are less. For example, we had in May an average fare that was 30 Reais [about US$17] less than they had, but our RASM was 20% higher because we had an 85% load factor and they had a 58% load factor.

Cranky: Was part of the decision with the Embraers also a political aspect? Choosing a Brazilian-made plane?
David: That was just the frosting on the cake. We would never have done it just for political reasons, but having that advantage, we’ve certainly made the most out of it. Now with the ATRs come along. . . .


Cranky: Yeah, I was going to ask about that.
David: There are a lot of cities that just don’t have service, period. So we’re going into a bunch of cities in interior São Paulo that either have 1 or 2 flights a day or none. We give them good service, we’re kind of doing to ourselves what we did to the other guys. Because the ATR has about a 40% lower trip cost and about the same seat cost, which is astounding. The reason for that is that turboprops burn a lot less fuel and the cost of fuel in Brazil is about $1 more than in the US.

Cranky: With the ATRs, I looked at that and said, ok, you’re clearly not going to look at Embraer. You could have gone to an Embraer 170 if you were just concerned about the seats, but from a cost perspective that’s not a cheap plane.
David: Yeah, people like jets but jets just burn a lot more gas. An Embraer 145 with 50 passengers burns twice as much gasoline as a 70 seat ATR.

Cranky: Yeah, that’s why nobody wants the 50 seaters anymore.
David: Yeah

Cranky: I’m assuming you also looked at the Q400 so what was it about the ATR?
David: It was a couple things. The Q400 offers two advantages – it’s faster, flies about 50 knots faster [Cranky note: ATR says the ATR 72-600 max cruise speed is 276 kts while the Q400 is 360 kts] and it carries 6 more seats at the same seat pitch. The first hour doesn’t really save you that much with the speed. Most of our flights are 1 hour or 1.5 hours so it was not a big deal to us.

And the Q400 weighs 10,000 lbs more than the ATR [Cranky note: Operating empty weight for the ATR 72-600 is 28,682 lbs and for the Q400 HGW is 37,888 lbs] and burns about 30% more fuel. We didn’t need the speed, we didn’t need the seats, so why would we spend 30% on gas? For us, it was really a no-brainer to go with the ATR.

Cranky: With the ATR, are you treating it as the same type of experience onboard or is more of a traditional express type of service?
David: Well, it’s a very short flight. The average stage length is under an hour. I’m not going to put LiveTV on those planes. We’ll have that by the end of the year on the Embraer 195s. There’s 2/2 seating, leather seats, good seat pitch. Comfort issues will be the same as what we have on our 195 fleet. We just won’t have in-seat TV sets.


Cranky: Back to the Embraers. I know there were teething probelms with JetBlue in terms of dispatch reliability. Have those been worked out?
David: Every single plane has kind of a break-in period. We’re finding that the dispatch reliability on the 195, and that’s our bread and butter, every plane has its little idiosyncrasies, but we’re really happy. We’re flying them 14 hours a day and our dispatch reliability is over 99%, so we hardly ever canceled a flight due to maintenance.

Cranky: 14 hours a day?
David: Yeah, 13 or 14 depending upon the month.

Cranky: Wow. So you’re continuing this rapid growth path here, right?
David: Yeah, I mean whenever you have an opportunity and a market, to make sure you get established and have economies of scale. . . . There’s a wide open market in Brazil and we’re taking advantage of it.


And that’s it for part two. As I mentioned, come back tomorrow when we talk about what David thinks is wrong with JetBlue and what the airline needs to do to fix it.

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15 Comments on "David Neeleman on Azul’s Decision to Use Embraers and ATR Turboprops (Across the Aisle, Part 2)"

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Dirk Blaine

He was quite a ways off on those Q400 numbers. Sounds like Neeleman never actually talked to Bombardier. Those figures sound exactly like what ATR would say about it’s competitor.

In fact, that is a loaded statement because a friend from Azul’s fleet planning told me that Bombardier was never even invited to compare. Perhaps it has something to do with being in Embraer’s back yard.

Bill from DC

i’m not sure i agree. the only factor that he was off on was cruising speed which, as pointed out, would not be much of a factor on short flights. it seems clear he was looking for the plane with the lowest cost to operate.

Frank V

I’m no expert, but I suspect he was pulling round numbers from the top of his head, and I think they were in the ballpark.

David SF eastbay

At least they are smart enough to know they need another type aircraft to serve other markets to not always do what every one else is doing. And if they are going to serve markets with little or not traffic, the public will be happy to have air service and not care that it’s a turbo prop.

Nick Barnard

It would’ve been interesting to
get his take on X-Jet’s now defunct branded operation, given that’s what they seem to be doing in Brazil.

Bill from DC

except x-jet was trying to do it with 50 seat RJs that burn 2x as much fuel as the 70 seat ATR props azul is using. it is the same idea (nonstops to underserved markets) but with VERY different execution.

in fact, x-jet and indy air only tried that model because they had nothing else to do w/ dozens of extra 40-50 seat RJs. most, if not all, agreed at the time that the model might work but the a/c used were the wrong type to make it work.

Marcelo F. De Biasi
What Neeleman says is actually spot-on. The ATR is indeed cheaper, also in terms of maintenance. Nevertheless, there also some things which he seems to ‘avoid’. Yes, 16 of the 22 routes Azul currently serves are only served by them. And yes he will continue to build on routes which only Azul will be serving. Anyhow, traffic is increasingly rapidly and on certain flights nowadays there and he is effectively building a main hub and several (regional) mini-hubs which are connected to each other. His trunk routes are packed and he is running out of slots at his hubs. At… Read more »
I was one of the small number of ATR fans–I think Delta may now regret retiring them, particularly in the ATL-HHH market. It’s certainly one of the nicest props I’ve flown on, though I’ve yet to fly a Q400. One interesting quirk of the ATR, and I wonder if they’ve kept it on the -600 series, is that it has no APU. Instead, the #2 engine can be put into “Hotel mode”, in which the propshaft is disconnected from the turbine. An APU is just a little turbine, as is the “turbo” part of the “turboprop” engine, so you can… Read more »

[…] We had a wide-ranging discussion on everything from fleet decisions in Brazil to his departure from JetBlue. He’s still not happy about that and has a list of things that he thinks JetBlue needs to do. David doesn’t hold any punches, and that’s refreshing. But you’ll have to wait for part three for the JetBlue discussion. Today, we start with talk about Brazil’s fabled air traffic control system and the rapid growth and opportunity in the country. Tomorrow in part two, we’ll look at Azul’s fleet decisions. […]


[…] at JetBlue, and as a shareholder, he wants to see things change. You can catch up with part one and part two, if you missed […]