The economy of regional airline services is much more intricate than the principles applied to mainline air transport. Among the key problems in this sector are the low purchasing power of the population and the high specific costs associated to the smaller seating capacity of regional aircraft and the relatively short route legs they are operated on. This is why, whenever the mainline segment in Russia enters periods of stagnation, the regional air services market begins to shrink; similarly, the recent explosive growth of mainline airline transport has been accompanies by very insignificant improvements on the regional market.
Another problem is that an effective method of interaction between the network and feeder carriers was never really introduced in Russia. The majority of regional and local carriers are therefore unable to accumulate enough capital to purchase new equipment, so continue to operate Soviet-made aircraft. As a result, these airframes are fast approaching the end of their service life, and regional carriers lack not just money for fleet renovation purposes but even reliable business models that could attract external funding.
This unfortunate state of affairs prompts market players to seek inexpensive solutions to the problem of ageing regional fleets. The range of options for airliners seating over 50 passengers is more or less obvious; as for smaller aircraft, a great many projects of varying feasibility are being proposed.
One realistic — though admittedly not the cheapest — solution to Russia’s thirst for single-engine aircraft seating up to 10 passengers would be the nine-seat Cessna 208B Grand Caravan turboprop. The type is already operated in this country by the Siberian carriers AeroGeo and Tomsk Avia. There are however many alternative proposals out there.
The idea of re-engining the veteran Antonov An-2 biplane has recently been making rounds in the Russian aviation community. The primary argument being voiced by proponents of this solution is that the aircraft’s original ASh-62I piston engine runs on gasoline, a type of fuel that is expensive and not always readily available in Russia. In fact, a re-engined version of the An-2 already exists: some 30 aircraft have been upgraded to the An-3T standard through the installation of the TVD-20 turboprop powerplant. It appears however that the An-3T is not getting much demand, probably due to its hefty price tag ($1.5 to $2 million). SibNIA Siberian Aeronautical Research Institute has come up with an alternative solution, dubbed An-2MS, which implies replacing the original engine with an overhauled Garrett TPE-331 turboprop at $800,000.
It is as yet difficult to say whether this latter variant will be popular with regional operators. Besides, it is unclear how many An-2s still in operation can actually be re-engined. The total Russian An-2 fleet currently stands at about 1,500 airframes, but only some 300 of these are actually being used.
The An-2 OEM, the Ukrainian company Antonov, has its own An-2 re-engining offer dubbed An-2-100. This modification is powered by the Motor Sich MS-14 turboprop engine and also includes minimal upgradation of the avionics suite. Antonov aims to have the re-engined version certified by early 2013; the cost of upgrading one An-2 to the -100 standard is estimated at $900,000.
Certification of a re-engined An-2, regardless of the variant, may pose a problem in itself. Under the current Russian regulations, a single-engine commercial aircraft cannot carry more than nine passengers. The original An-2 design seats 12. The prospect of giving up 25% of the airplane’s passenger capacity will hardly enjoy popularity with potential customers. Besides, it is not entirely clear whether the original An-2 design itself can meet the rigorous contemporary certification requirements.
Despite the abundance of re-engining choices, one thing is clear: a refurbished An-2 is unlikely to sell in any significant numbers without government support. This is why all projects mentioned above are targeting budget funding.
Work continues on further improvements to the single-engine Myasishchev M-101T Gzhel aircraft. Russia’s Dexter air-taxi service briefly operated several examples but eventually switched over to the Pilatus PC-12. Now Myasishchev and Nizhny Novgorod-based Sokol production plant are developing an upgraded version, the M-101TM, to be powered by the General Electric H80 engine. The modification will have wingtip fuel tanks and a number of other improvements. Myasishchev’s longer-term plans include the development of the eight-seat M-103 passenger/cargo version, the M-107 trainer, and the M-201GP twin-engine aircraft seating up to 16 passengers in a pressurized cabin. This latter design will have a MTOW range of 2,166 km and a cruise speed of 510 kph. Again, this is not the only multi-engine project currently being offered to Russian local and regional operators.
Perhaps the only realistic option for Russian carriers looking to get new aircraft seating up to 20 passengers is the 19-seat L-410 UVP-E20 modification of the once-ubiquitous Czech-made Let L-410 Turbolet twin-engined STOL airplane. If bought in Russia the aircraft will be priced at 150-160 million rubles (upwards of $5 million), but this sum includes reimbursable VAT. The Czech manufacturer Airсraft Industries (which is controlled by Russian Ural Mining and Metallurgy Company) says 17 UVP-E20s were sold in Russia and the CIS between 2009 and 2011, and another 11 were delivered to customers in other countries. Five aircraft have been delivered in 2012, all of them to Russia, and there are orders for nine more. From 2013 onwards all new UVP-E20s will be fitted with the more powerful and fuel-efficient General Electric Н80 engines, hiking the aircraft?s price by 7-10%.
The project to develop in Russia the 10-seat, twin-engined Progress Rysachok turboprop seems to have fallen through. Originally designed as a multi-engine training aircraft for flying schools, the Rysachok?s specification underwent several revisions during the development process. At MAKS 2011 air show the aircraft was being promoted as a potential replacement for the An-2, but its future however is uncertain. The development program has been marred by several legal battles; in May 2012 the Samara-based TsSKB Progress manufacturer won a lawsuit worth some $5 million against the Rysachok developer, the Moscow-based company Technoavia. Two flying examples have been built to date, and one airframe remains partially assembled.
Attempts are being made to launch several aircraft production projects within the Ulyanovsk special port economic zone. These include possible resumption of de Havilland DHC-6 Twin Otter production, local assembly of the new French SK-105 Skylander design, and the Czech Evektor EV-55 Outback project.
AeroGeo in late September 2012 signed an MOU with Evektor for the purchase of 29 Outbacks (nine orders and 20 options). A technology transfer agreement was also signed at the time as part of the Vektor NG RUS joint venture, whose General Director Aleksandr Berezin says talks are in progress with the Ulyanovsk zone authorities on possible launch of local Outback production from 2014, by which time the type is expected to obtain a Russian certificate.
The fundamental problem of the Russian regional airline market is that it differs from similar markets in the rest of the world, where small-sized aircraft are primarily purchased by GA operators and not by commercial carriers. Such airplanes are usually produced in large numbers, which drives the prices down. In Russia, GA is barely surviving and private pilots are simply unable to produce any sort of solvent demand for small aircraft types.