VENICE -- Nearly a generation has passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the bi-polar world of communist and capitalist economies has given way to an interconnected world of globalized competition and industrial integration often bolstered by state support.
With the commercial jet aircraft manufacturing landscape having dwindled to just four players over the past decade, that trend of industrial consolidation is set to reverse itself in the years to come. Russian aircraft manufacturer Sukhoi, best known for its portfolio of fighter aircraft, is the first in a spate of new entrants to offer a jetliner assembled solely in the eastern hemisphere, but marketed to the world.
Its product, the 100-seat SSJ100 aircraft, made its first flight from Komsomolsk-on-Aumr, Russia in May 2008. It is powered by two PowerJet SaM146 engines, and is the launch point of a new business model which aims to challenge the established airframers Embraer and Bombardier on a global battlefield, starting with entry into service by year's end with Russian flag carrier Aeroflot and Armenian carrier Armavia.
As the first new entrant to step up to the plate, Suhkoi Civil Aircraft (SCAC) solidfied its strategic partnership with Alenia Aeronautica, the civil branch of Finnemeccanica, in June 2006 with a 75%/25% development split. A year later forming Superjet International, a Venice, Italy-based joint venture between Alenia (51%) and Sukhoi (49%) that took the reins on global marketing and product support.
The road to it's year-end entry into service, like the Airbus A380 and Boeing 787, has faced two years of delay after its originally planned November 2008 first delivery slipped due to an over-optimistic development schedule and production issues on the aircraft's engine. The engine-maker now claims it is in control of those issues, and is now winding down its four-aircraft flight test program with the approaching first flight of its first production aircraft.
With next week's Farnborough air show marking just over a year since the new 100 seater's western debut at the Paris air show, the Superjet is poised to announced new orders, including a fresh Letter of Intent from a North American lessor for up to 65.
The lessor, who did not want to preempt a formal announcement at the air show, says that Superjet made a compelling technical and aftermarket case for the SSJ against its Brazilian and Canadian competitors, calling the SSJ the "best 100 seater on the horizon."
That bold claim, says the lessor, is anchored by the aircraft's supplier list reads like a who's who of western aircraft manufacturing. While critics of the Superjet say the venture is no more than a state-funded exercise that defies natural market forces and an aviation anachronism amongst composite innovators, but that criticism ignores the reality of the underlying technology driving the program.
The environmental and flight control systems are supplied by Liebherr, hydraulic system from Parker Hannafin, auxiliary power unit from Honeywell, Goodrich wheels, brakes and brake system controls, Messier-Dowty landing gear, Zodiac-Intertechnique fuel system and a PowerJet engine, a joint venture between Snecma and Russian engine maker Saturn NPO.
Additionally, the Thales avionics are grounded on a foundation similar to the Airbus A380, says Superjet, with an Aircraft Full Duplex switched data network (AFDX) and Integrated Modular Avionics (IMA) core that exceeds its nearest competitors with full fly-by-wire architecture and RNP .3 precision navigation capability and CATIIIa autoland capability.
The systems integration stands in contrast to Cold War-era Russian-made jetliners which exclusively used homegrown systems that lacked interoperability and had a reputation for being unreliable.
The new engine in particular features Snecma technology built on the CFM56 integrated with Leap-X advantages, including one-third reduction in high pressure stages from 9 to 6, while Superjet claims a 12% fuel burn advantage over its single-class 100-seat competitors the Embraer E-190 and Bombardier CRJ900, driven by a lighter airframe with better payload range capability around 2,400nm due to the five-abreast seating.
Suhkoi and Alenia's business case does not center around a next generation material system like that of Boeing or Airbus, a revolutionary systems architecture or supply chain, rather it's foundation is rooted in established advanced technology and a new supercritical wing profile, all while aiming to offering the new jet for as much as 20% less than its competition on the market, with a pricetag of $27.8 million.
Superjet International's offices on the edge of Marco Polo International Airport in Venice are still coming together, says Giacomo Perfetto, the joint venture's head of communications, but the empty desks of its future training center will soon be occupied by desktop training computers and belies both the new nature of the program, as well as its extraordinary ambition to break into the western market. Within a year, Superjet hopes to be training western pilots at this Venice facility. Russian pilots are already well into their flight training at a training center in Moscow.
Time and again, the established airframers say that the challenge to new market entrants is not designing, certifying and delivering a new jetliner, but the process of seeing it through its multi-decade service life.
"Think about Embraer at the beginning," says Perfetto. "Who would have been willing to bet a dollar on a Brazilian plane?"
Perfetto plainly admits that Superjet International has its work cut out for it, but that won't stop the company from trying. With first delivery to Aeroflot at the end of this year, Perfetto sees the early service life of the Superjet as a proving ground for the aircraft. The central challenge, he says, revolves around validating the aircraft's performance and demonstrating that the maintenance partnerships the venture has formed to live up to western standards of airline operational reliability and maintainability.
The new customer says they've been provided contractual assurances from Alenia and SCAC that 98% of parts will be dispatched from strategic depots, such as the one being set up in Frankfurt in partnership with Lufthansa Technik Logistik, within three hours of receiving a service call and the remaining 2% within 72 hours.
"We are the new kid on the block, as we say," says Perfetto. "We need this reputation. We have to establish a solid reputation, we try our best on our part, we have no doubt the aircraft will be built the right way by our partners in Russia, so I think there's ground based for a perfect mix. Now the market will tell."
The lessor, while declaring "absolute faith in the product" acknowledges that western airlines remain uneasy about Russian aircraft and whether the Superjet can be supported in service to the same level as its American, European, Canadian and Brazilian counterparts. By spreading the risk between lessors and airlines, the new customer hopes to deliver lower acquisition costs for operators, while ensuring that airlines feel they have an exit strategy if they are dissatisfied.
"We have put our money where our mouth is," says the North American lessor.