Russian jet airliner projects face an uncertain future

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With Russia's civil aircraft manufacturing industry focused on the arrival of the all-new MS-21 twinjet from around 2016, there have been mixed fortunes for the two prime in-production types, the Ilyushin Il-96 widebody and single-aisle Tupolev Tu-204/214.

Production of both types remains at a trickle compared with their Western equivalents, and the near-term outlook for deliveries remains poor. United Aircraft (UAC), which is the umbrella organisation charged with steering the development of Russia's aircraft manufacturing, is gearing up to introduce a major rework of the Tu-204, dubbed, the SM, which will succeed the current variants from 2011. Production should then continue until 2016 when its successor, the MS-21, is due to arrive.

The SM is a modernisation of the baseline Tu-204-100 and Tu-204-300 "shrink" - built by Aviastar in Ulyanovsk, as well as the Kazan-built Tu-214 (a higher weight Tu-204-100). Improvements include more efficient Aviadvigatel PS-90A2 engines that promise improved reliability, a new auxiliary power unit, revised avionics and greater use of advanced materials such as composites and aluminium lithium. The result is up to 2t lower operating empty weight.

il-96-400 vladamir karnozov
 © Vladamir Karnozov

Aviastar will gradually transition to the Tu-204SM, while Kazan-based KAPO will become a supplier to the Ulyanovsk line, producing the wing.

The first prototype is due to roll out in 2010, with type certification is targeted for 2011. Production plans call for around 100 Tu-204SMs to be built over five years.On 17 October 2009, a Tu-204 test aircraft took off on a 1h 25min flight with an experimental PS-90A2 in place of one of its standard PS-90s.

POOR RELIABILITY

The new variant cannot come too soon for current Tu-204 operators, who have been extremely vocal about the twinjet's poor reliability and support. The situation became so bad in September that the Russian regulator hinted a grounding might be implemented unless things improved.

UAC's president Alexey Fyodorov acknowledged that the aircraft had suffered recurring problems stemming from poor quality of some components, and inadequate after-sales support. He has identified the PS-90A engines as one key area of concern - their poor reliability accounted for the bulk of complaints from key operator Red Wings - and has implemented a plan to resolve the issues.

According to the latest production plans for Russia's civil aircraft, Tu-204/214 output will total 58 between 2009 and 2012, 13 fewerthan the previous plan, while just nine Il-96s are due to be built by VASO in Voronezh.

The -400T is the latest variant of the four-engined widebody - a stretched cargo version of the PS-90-powered Il-96-300. It got off to a wobbly start last year when its original customer, Aeroflot Cargo, cancelled its deal as the first aircraft was delivered. Voronezh-based cargo airline Polet came to the rescue by agreeing to take over the Il-96-400Ts.

Deliveries began of three aircraft, on 15-year financial leases from lessor Ilyushin Finance (IFC), in September. Polet also signed an option for three more for delivery from next year. The 92t freighter entered revenue service on 27 September between Moscow Domodedovo airport and Yakutsk.

Meanwhile, a potential foreign customer has emerged: IFC is in talks with a UK-registered start-up for up to 10 Il-96-400Ts, although the type is not certificated in Europe or the USA.

While there appear to be few realistic prospects for the Il-96 family, Aviadvigatel's enhanced PS-90A2 powerplant for the Tu-204SM is being proposed for a modernised version of the Il-96-300.