As Superjet International makes its final push to ready an Interjet-liveried Superjet 100 regional jet for display at the Paris air show, the Venice-based operation is quietly hoping that it may have a choice of two aircraft to take to Le Bourget.
The Alenia Aermacchi-Sukhoi joint venture responsible for marketing and customer support in Western markets, as well as completion for Western customers, has one aircraft nearly finished in its hangar at Venice Marco Polo airport, but while the interior installation of a second is only about halfway finished, work on that second aircraft is going so smoothly that chief executive Nazario Cauceglia thinks he will have the luxury of choosing which one to fly to Le Bourget.
Though both may be finished before the Paris air show kicks off, it is remarkable how much more advanced one is than the other. Customer account manager Bruce McCrea says it may seem strange, given the pressure to get aircraft delivered to Interjet, to have been working on one aircraft while leaving the other idle. But this choice has paid off, as, he says, the knowledge that has been built up by working out the details on one aircraft has made completion of the second much faster.
As Cauceglia puts it, the decision was made so as not to have "two prototypes at once".
Cauceglia is naturally focussed on the delivery - by end-2014 - of 20 aircraft to Interjet. That one-per-month rate will be "quite challenging, but we are confident that after this start up phase we can sustain this rate".
Superjet receives the aircraft green from Sukhoi, and is doing the paint, full interior installation and work to meet any service bulletins. The project had momentum from the start, having taken over the facilities and staff of Alenia-owned maintenance and modification specialist Aeronavali. But this final knitting together of an airframe built in Russia with extensive Western content was inevitably going to be taxing. The completion hangar at Venice Marco Polo airport will generally house its full complement of three aircraft, but in these early days has just two.
Ultimately, though, the challenge is to bring this aircraft to Western customers made sceptical by its Russian origins. But, stresses Cauceglia, the aircraft is actually 60% Western, including all its major systems, so he is confident that "the Western market is waiting for this aircraft" and that attitudes will change "dramatically" in "just a few months" of its entry into service.
On that count, Superjet International believes it has a trump card in its customer, Interjet. The Mexican regional carrier is an enthusiastic and involved customer, which, says Cauceglia, "really likes" the aircraft and will help Superjet break into Western markets.
"They supported us even in the very dark days after the [fatal Indonesian] accident," he says. "They were very strong in saying they never had any doubts."
Certainly, prospective operators should get a clear view of what the SSJ100 can achieve in service. Interjet has agreed to provide what McCrea calls "unprecedented" access to its day-to-day operating experience. This data will be important; though SSJ100s have amassed some 20,000 service hours to date, particularly with Aeroflot, and that service has been "quite satisfactory", Cauceglia notes that is has not been easy to collect and share information.
And, adds McCrea, Mexican certification authorities have also been working closely with the Interjet-Superjet International-Sukhoi drive to bring the aircraft to Mexico, so as not to do anything that would unnecessarily "hold it up".
Interjet's actual entry into service date remains a "floating target", says Cauceglia, but "mid-June" delivery means the aircraft that is shown at Le Bourget will almost certainly fly straight on to Mexico. That ferry will be flown by Interjet pilots, who have been trained on Superjet's Thales-built full-flight simulator at Marco Polo. So far, the centre has trained 10 crews since the simulator was certificated by EASA in February. Crews have been making some base flights from Marco Polo to complete their type ratings in anticipation of delivery. For each aircraft, five crews are trained - making 40 crews or 80 pilots this year, to handle the eight aircraft scheduled for 2013 delivery - along with seven cabin attendants and mechanics. Much of the mechanics training is being done by computer, with a Superjet International instructor based at Interjet's Toluca headquarters.
To maintain its pilot's skills, Interjet expects to need more than 1,000h of simulator time yearly, and is considering getting its own full-flight unit in Toluca.
As for the actual aircraft, Sukhoi is working on some short-term upgrades, to reduce weight and improve aerodynamics. But Cauceglia is excited about what he calls "medium term" developments. Sukhoi is currently working on a long-range version, which will extend the SSJ100s range to 2,470nm (4,578km), from its current 1,645nm (3,048km). The first of 10 ordered by Gazpromavia will be delivered in July.
Two aircraft for VIP use are on order by the Russian government, and Comlux has ordered two with two options. But that long-range variant will become the basis for a Sukhoi business jet, which Cauceglia believes will offer a uniquely attractive package that could attract 100 orders. With supplementary fuel tanks and range further extended by winglets, also in development by Sukhoi, the aircraft should offer the performance - including cabin cross-section - of Airbus A320 and Boeing 737 VIP models at the price of smaller, dedicated business aircraft.
The winglets, he says, are likely to be factory-fit by Sukhoi, but discussions are underway that might see the auxiliary tanks fitted in Venice.
But Cauceglia is careful not to reach too far into the future. The Superjet 100 programme is still in its early days, and he is quick to note that Superjet International is a very young and fast-growing company, which started in 2008 with 20 employees and now employs nearly 300, but is still working from temporary facilities built inside a hangar at Marco Polo; indeed, a visitor takes little nudging to recognise that the wooden-box feel of the place is not far from that of chalet at, say, Le Bourget.
"The first priority," says Cauceglia, "is to get positive operating experience."