Russia’s Sukhoi Superjet 100 (SSJ 100) has already logged more than 100,000 flight hours since it entered commercial operation in April 2011. This type flies to over 130 destinations in the fleets of both Russian and foreign carriers. However, the commercial success of the program remains fairly modest while the aircraft’s manufacturer, Sukhoi Civil Aircraft Company (SCAC), is now seeking new ways to boost sales.
The latest serious effort in this area was made this past May, when the SSJ 100 got a chance to break into the promising Chinese market with a new lease scheme agreed between SCAC’ parent company United Aircraft Corporation (UAC), the Russia-China Investment Fund, the Xixian New Area Administrative Committee, and the Chinese company New Century International Leasing. The parties signed a framework agreement in Moscow to set up a joint venture based in the Sino-Russian Silk Road Hi-Tech Industrial Park in Xi’an, Shaanxi Province. The JV would offer Superjets to Chinese and Southeast Asian carriers under operational lease agreements. The partners expect the enterprise to buy up to 100 SSJ 100s within the first three years of operation, to a total value of about $3.5 billion in list prices.
The share of each party in the new joint venture will be determined at a later stage, UAC President Yuri Slyusar said, explaining that the deal had been agreed within a very short period of time, in the course of negotiations which were launched only three months prior to the signing of the memorandum. Slyusar told Russia & CIS Observer that, under the original agreement, the first five aircraft are scheduled to be delivered to China in 2016, but that the Russian side hopes to increase this number to 10.
In parallel, SCAC has launched the SSJ 100 type certificate validation process in China. It is to be completed by the end of 2015.
The partners are also planning to support SSJ 100 operations in the region by opening a maintenance center with a spares stock and a training facility in Xi’an. The next step could involve the opening of a regional customization center for cabin interior installations and paint jobs. Slyusar hopes the new sales scheme will help the Superjet 100 capture at least 10% of the Southeast Asian market for regional aircraft, which the UAC estimates will amount to 1,400 airframes in the next 20 years.
So far, Sukhoi’s sales efforts in Asia have not looked very impressive: the manufacturer delivered three airframes to Indonesia’s Sky Aviation, and another one to Laos’ Lao Central. Both carriers have failed to serve as SSJ 100 promoters in the region: neither flies anymore.
The Mexican carrier Interjet is currently the only non-Russian operator of the type. The airline received its 15th aircraft this May, with 15 more to come. The deal is being managed by SuperJet International (SJI), a joint venture between Sukhoi and the program’s strategic partner Alenia Aermacchi. SJI CEO Nazario Cauceglia has announced plans to deliver six more aircraft to Mexico by the end of 2015, and to complete deliveries in the course of 2016. One SSJ 100 in the Interjet livery is expected to be at display at Paris Air Show this year.
Despite the SSJ 100’s quite impressive operational history in Mexico, where it is demonstrating 99% dispatch reliability on average, this does not guarantee an easy life for the program. According to SCAC, the Superjet 100 has generated only 192firm orders so far, with 51 airframes already in commercial operations. All the current operators except Interjet are Russian: Aeroflot (20 aircraft), Gazpromavia (eight), Red Wings (three), Center-South (three), and Yakutia (two). Red Wings has already confirmed its plans to expand the SSJ 100 fleet by seven more airframes by the end of next year.
The Russian manufacturer reached a production peak in 2014, rolling out 37 aircraft that year. Production capacity of the SCAC assembly facility in Komsomolsk-on-Amur has been boosted to 50 airframes per year. However, according to Slyusar, production plans for this year stand at a modest 36 airframes.
SCAC admits that its failure to meet the sales target and a number of knowingly loss-making contracts resulted in a net loss of 8.592 billion rubles (about $161 million at the current exchange rate) in 2014 under the international financial reporting standards, or about 10% up year-on-year. The Russian government has made several attempts to back its major aircraft program. In March this year, it arranged for 100 billion rubles to be injected in the UAC charter capital. This money, it was said at the time, would be spent mostly on the SSJ 100 program. Earlier, in October 2014, SCAC was supported through direct or indirect loan guarantees and a capital increase for a total sum of about $2 billion.
The program’s inefficiency prompted Alenia to propose changes to the management scheme. The Italian company formally reduced its share in SCAC from the initial 25% to 5.9% after the Russian government injected 36 billion rubles in the company’s charter capital in 2014. Despite this, Alenia will keep its blocking vote until the end of 2017, when it is expected to invest another $390 million in SCAC so as to restore the partnership balance.
According to sources in the Russian industry, the partners are now negotiating improvements to the SSJ 100 sales system. The current division between SCAC (sales to Russia, the CIS, and Asia) and Superjet International (the Western world) is to be canceled, and the program management to be placed under the uniform control of a newly established joint company. The new entity will likely be registered in Russia in order to enjoy government support.
Another possible change to the SSJ 100 program expected to be announced this summer concerns further expansion of the airliner family. Slyusar promised earlier this year that the UAC product range would be reviewed. The current SSJ 100 baseline and longrange variants could be supplemented by a stretch with up to 130-seat capacity. The maximum capacity for the current airframe stands at 103 passengers in the all-economy layout. This variant was certified in the interest of the Russian carrier UTair Aviation, whose order has since been suspended. Alexander Dolotovsky, SCAC deputy chief designer for aerodynamics, told Russia & CIS Observer earlier that the new version would require a new wing, but that it would still be based on the same technology.
The projected stretch could partially bridge a gap in the UAC product range, that between the SSJ 100 and the future MC-21 narrowbody family with 150- to 210-seat capacity. The MC-21 program is expected to bring Russia back to the lucrative narrowbody market. The rolling out of the first prototype is planned for the end of this year; the first flight could take place in the first half of 2016. The aircraft will begin flight trials with Pratt & Whitney PW1400G engines. Russia’s United Engine Corporation is working on an alternative powerplant, the Perm Motor Company PD-14. The first flight with the Russian engines is now slated for 2017. The UAC is planning to obtain the Russian type certificate and put the MC-21 into service by the end of 2018. EASA validation could follow in 2019. “We are planning to build up to 72 airframes per year. We currently have orders and commitments for 175 aircraft,” Slyusar says.
The widebody segment will be filled by a joint Russo-Chinese project officially launched by the UAC and China’s COMAC in 2014. The new airliner will seat 250-300 passengers and will have a range of up to 12,000 km. Its first flight is scheduled for 2021-22, followed by entry into service in 2025. The UAC estimated that the global demand for widebody airliners will amount to 8,000 through to the year 2033, including 1,000 aircraft in China.