It’s an odd thing but, although Boeing was very publicly involved in the design of Sukhoi’s Russian Regional Jet (RRJ), the aircraft has actually come out more Airbus-influenced. I’m not yet sure how important that is, but it’s possible that it could matter more than you might imagine.
In particular the aircraft has sidestick controllers rather than control yokes – and that represents an explicit decision by Sukhoi to go with Airbus thinking rather than Boeing.
I’ve been talking a fair bit to Russians and Westerners involved in the RRJ recently and here’s the story. Boeing, as I’ve mentioned before, has always been pretty ambivalent about the RRJ and got itself tied in some PR knots trying to explain in Russia that it was an important contributor to the programme, and in the West (and to shareholders) that its involvement was strictly limited. I think everyone knew what they meant, but it was messy, and the reason was that their interest was driven by the campaign to sell 737s to Aeroflot. That failed (and Aeroflot is going to need many more narrowbodies than the A320 it has so far ordered, so it was expensive) and ever since Boeing has been playing down its RRJ role even further. (It’s also winning the Aeroflot widebody contest in which the airline is fighting to take 787s against government-level forces that are insisting on the A350. I know that much is true, but I’m not pretending to understand what’s going on.)
Anyway, at the same time it was talking to Boeing, Sukhoi was put in touch with Air France by Aeroflot for heavyweight airline advice on the RRJ design. They also spoke to other European airlines including at least Iberia and SAS who were all being briefed by Airbus on the Thales-designed A380 cockpit by then and were hugely impressed with it. As a result, as we revealed at the time, changes were made – one of which was the switch to sidesticks in a cockpit also designed by Thales.
The upshot is that the RRJ will have substantial cockpit-commonality with Airbus aircraft. Is that important? Well, an awful lot of narrowbodies and regional jets are going to be sold in Russia and the CIS. How many and how soon is a very difficult question to answer – and Boeing and Airbus are both cagey about it in their forecasts. But Aeroflot went with Airbus (and is committed to taking the RRJ) and now Sibir/S7 is going the same way.
I hear the Russian government is also leaning on Vietnam Airlines, which like Aeroflot has Airbus narrowbodies and Boeing widebodies, to look at the RRJ. And more worryingly still, Sukhoi, backed by the army of French suppliers on the RRJ, is now targeting China where the indigenous ARJ21 is making little headway, and where the narrowbody market is of course gigantic.
The large regional jet sector just below the smallest Airbus and Boeing narrowbodies, is a very big deal and both of the big airframers are uncomfortable with it. They don’t really want to address it themselves, but they don’t want the players in it to grow into new competitors – which is why they were quick to rubbish Bombardier’s CSeries.
Two years ago Randy Baseler said to me that Boeing was probably going to have to go and duff up Bombardier (or words to that effect) because they couldn’t afford not to. What he actually said was: “Embraer and Bombardier really have to go up into the bigger market, because when the scope clauses go then everybody is going to move up. We are not so much concerned about the initial entries there, but about where they go from there. Do they go into 130, 150, 170 seats? Are we concerned? Well, partially.”
On the other hand, Boeing would probably rather see Sukhoi - Airbus-influenced or not – in the market than out because they will hurt both Bombardier and Embraer. My enemy’s enemy….