ANALYSIS: Sukhoi bids to ramp up Superjet production

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One of Mexican carrier Interjet's Sukhoi Superjet 100s is set to represent the Russian airframer's commercial interests at the Paris air show, while the manufacturer works to smooth its production process and broaden its tentative presence in the sector.

Interjet represents the first customer that the airframer classifies as Western, and work on the first of 20 Superjets for the carrier commenced at the Superjet International facility in Venice during October 2012. Aircraft 95023 rolled out of the paint shop in Interjet colours in February.

 credit - superjet international

 Superjet International

The finishing work has finally allowed the Italian venture to play a more prominent part in the Superjet programme, two years after the initial airframe was delivered to launch operator Armavia.

Venice has gained a new L3 full-flight simulator for Superjet training, the first to secure European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) certification for a Russian civil aircraft.

Interjet's crews have been undergoing simulator training while cabin crews and technicians have also been receiving instruction on the type.

The airline has cited the preference to use the training facilities in Venice as one of the reasons for pushing back the delivery of its Superjets from the end of 2012. Venice's simulator is one of three available, but the other two are located in Moscow: one at Zhukovsky and the other, newly installed for Aeroflot, at Sheremetyevo airport.

While the Mexican carrier has been reinforcing its 37-strong Airbus A320 fleet, notably by committing to the A320neo, the carrier's chief, Jose Luis Garza, says it will create a "secondary network" with its Superjets to complement the A320 operation.

The airline is looking at setting up second-tier bases - potentially at Monterrey, Tijuana and Guadalajara - from which to conduct services that would otherwise not be profitable owing to their lower traffic demand.

Interjet chief financial officer Alejandro Beristain Mercado says there are some 80 routes on which the airline could deploy the 93-seat Superjet - some of which emerged as a result of the collapse of Mexicana.

"These routes are currently operating with larger aircraft which are sub-optimal for such operations," he adds.

Interjet intends to have eight Superjets by the end of 2013. Two will be put into service in July, initially on domestic short-haul services - such as Mexico City-Acapulco - which will enable it to transfer A320s to other routes.

Deliveries of the entire batch of Superjets will be completed by the end of 2014.

Sukhoi has been trying to ramp up production of the aircraft, for which it is claiming a "firm portfolio" of 179 orders.

It delivered five aircraft in 2011 - one to Armavia and four to Aeroflot - and another seven the following year, comprising six more for Aeroflot and one to Siberian carrier Yakutia.

But the airframer lost momentum last year as an Indonesian inquiry probed the reasons behind the fatal loss of a prototype Superjet in May 2012, during a demonstration flight for Asian customers. The investigation finally exonerated the twinjet but held up Indonesian approval for the type.

Indonesian carrier Sky Aviation - whose personnel were among those on the ill-fated demonstration - stood by its order for 12 Superjets and, having taken delivery of its first in February this year, put the aircraft into commercial service in March on the Makassar-Sorong route.

Sky Aviation chief Krisman Tarighian describes the aircraft as the "perfect solution" to the difficulty of operating across a country comprising thousands of islands.

Indonesian airports are frequently limited by short runways but, he says, the Superjet is capable of operating from strips just 1,800m (5,900ft) long.

The first three Sky aircraft are being configured with 87 seats, including 12 in business class, but the others will be fitted with a higher-density 98-seat layout, with eight business seats.

Sky's initial flight was complemented the following day by the launch of a Superjet service by fellow Asian operator Lao Central Airlines, which operated its first example on a connection from the Laotian capital Vientiane to the city of Luangprabang.

Lao Central is taking three Superjets, all of which will have 93 seats.

By mid-April there were 32 PowerJet SaM146 engines in operation across the Superjet fleet, including 30 on wing, which had accumulated almost 40,000h in more than 25,000 cycles. The despatch reliability had reached 99.87% in March.

Sukhoi has not broken down its latest firm order figures, and there is a lack of clarity regarding the orders from Indonesia's Kartika Airlines and Italy's Blue Panorama. The demise of launch operator Armavia, which failed to take delivery of its second Superjet, has resulted in the airframer's offering both jets to Russian carrier Moskovia Airlines.

Technical hitches with several Aeroflot aircraft, primarily involving gear retraction and slat deployment, have added to Sukhoi's burden. Aeroflot will also be swapping out its first 10 Superjets, in order to take an upgraded version after belatedly requesting configuration and avionics changes. The first full-specification version was delivered on 31 May.

Sukhoi has transferred cabin fitting work to a separate facility at the Aviastar plant in Ulyanovsk, where work on the first replacement Aeroflot jet began in March. The interior changes include a third lavatory and additional galley systems, as well as rearrangement of the baggage compartments.

But the sales operation is still progressing. Russian airline Transaero signed for six of the type in mid-2012 and lessor Ilyushin Finance has been negotiating for 20.

United Aircraft says Sukhoi had produced a total of 17 Superjets by the end of 2012 but maintains that it is "moderately optimistic" that there is a market for 170 of the type in Russia and former Soviet states, and export potential for 700 by 2032.

Although the pace of production has increased, the airframer is still lagging far behind its original production forecasts. Sukhoi is hoping to produce up to 30 aircraft this year and, as part of the supply effort, has recruited a second paint shop, an Eirtech Aviation facility based in Czech.

The airframer hopes the production ramp-up over 2013-15 will reduce the impact of early customer discounting which, it says, has had a "negative impact" on the company's financial performance.

Sukhoi's civil aircraft division turned in a heavy net loss of Rb4.5 billion ($142 million) during 2012. It points out that the Superjet is its only programme and that it could not, therefore, rely on support from other projects.

Such was the financial burden on the division that Russian government auditors last year openly questioned whether the Superjet programme might be driven to the point of bankruptcy as it tried to fund increased serial production, and the company's own auditor expressed similar concerns.

But the airframer has remained confident that its financial backers, including Russian bank VEB, will continue to support the programme. VEB has agreed to loan arrangements supporting shipment of several Superjets.

Sukhoi's heavy expenditure during 2012 has included funding for the new longer-range version of the Superjet, the first example of which is set to be delivered to Gazpromavia. This higher-weight variant, which first flew in February, is fitted with an increased-thrust version of the SaM146 engine and will be able to operate across a 2,470nm (4,570km) range.

Future enhancements under study for the Superjet include the installation of blended winglets to reduce fuel burn and improve the type's take-off and climb performance.