Russian's 100 Seat SuperJet Takes the Limelight

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We recently wrote about the Paris Air show and the growing threat to Airbus and Boeing’s duopoly from challengers in the 100 seat plus sector. These challengers hail notably from China, Brazil, Canada and Russia. The Russians once had a sizable and relatively sophisticated aircraft industry. In the days of the cold war they churned out large numbers of capable combat aircraft although anyone that has flown in a Tupolev or Antanov will confirm their civil aviation offerings left much to be desired. That aging fleet of Russian made aircraft did not fit well with modern airline financing schemes and the major carriers have gradually replaced Tu-134 with 737 and A319’s, much to the relief of travelers. Ninety Tu-134’s still fly with regional carriers however and one tragically went down on June 20 near Petrozavodsk with the loss of 47 lives. We don’t yet know if the crash occurred due to pilot error or mechanical failure as the investigation remains ongoing but President Medvedev has already suggested the rest should cease flying starting in 2012. The timing may or may not have something to do with the launch of Sukhoi’s new SuperJet-100, the makers of which claim they have 170 planes on order. According to an article in Russia Now, intend to ramp up production from 7 last year to 30 this year.

Although Sukhoi tout the SuperJet as an example of a resurgent Russian aviation industry, in reality the plane, assembled at Komsomolsk-on-Amur 4000 miles to the east of Moscow, involves quite a bit more than Russian ingenuity. The French supply the fuel systems, avionics, landing gear and play a heavy role with the engines. The US provides the fire protection system, wheels, brakes, power supply/APU, hydraulics the cabin interior and oxygen systems. Boeing serves as the design consultants. A number of other firms in Europe supply crew seats, flight control systems, environmental control systems and various other parts.  Apart from the airframe, the planes have a multinational collaboration feel as opposed to a made in Russia stamp. Still as a result it may well secure greater global acceptance, an objective Sukhoi has pursued vigorously with sales already made to Latin America and CIS states.

A larger 200+ seat aircraft designed by Tupolev and called the Tu-204 and said to resemble the 757 has not proved so successful. Originally conceived back in the late 1980’s only a few go into production each year and just 69 completed to date. A figure Sukhoi hope to match per annum within a couple of years as they aim for 800 in total sales over the life of the program.

Perhaps this form of international collaboration will pave the way forward for small to medium size jets in the future. Western firms providing the high technology components while local manufacturers build the airframes with the benefit of lower cost labor, land or tax treatment. The market has considerable scope for growth in Latin America, Asia and with established low cost operators in Europe looking to secure better terms than provided by Boeing or Airbus. Meanwhile as Alcoa’s announcement this week of a $1bn deal to supply higher strength lithium aluminum alloy materials to Airbus shows the duopoly will continue to fight back with ever greater fuel efficiency, range and sophistication.

–Stuart Burns

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