As Sukhoi Civil Aircraft prepares for the September rollout of the Superjet 100 (SSJ), the acid test will be not only whether the Russian airframer can deliver an advanced regional jet on schedule but more importantly whether it can keep it flying.
The development programme has enjoyed an unprecedented level of international co-operation but that was always recognised as only representing half the equation to ensure the jet's commercial success. The other half of the proposition remains how to go about convincing a market beyond Russia's borders that its support environment can rival the after sales infrastructure of competitors such as Canada's Bombardier and Brazil's Embraer,
As flight testing and sales efforts continue, the one remaining key challenge for Sukhoi is to banish the spectre of a national aerospace industry whose shattering transition from command to market economy left in its wake an unwelcome reputation for perilously weak aircraft maintenance.
While the emerging market in Russia for a new-generation regional jet was one of the prime motivators for the SSJ programme, export potential has always been prized. In a bid to persuade foreign airlines which could potentially account for three quarters of its forecast 800 aircraft sales by 2024, Sukhoi has therefore cemented the very same relationships it formed with the West to industrially develop the SSJ100.
Its strategic partner Italy's Alenia Aeronautica together with French risk sharing partner Snecma and US airframer Boeing Commercial Airplanes in its capacity as consultant have all signed up to the next stage to help Sukhoi provide the critical aftersales support infrastructure.
First came Boeing which on 9 June signed a memorandum of understanding outlining a long-term agreement extending and enhancing the basis of its existing consultancy which to date has centred principally on lending its expertise in aircraft production.
The protocol provides for increased Boeing involvement in setting up aftersales support, including access to the US airframer's state-of-the-art-crew and maintenance training as well as access to spares distribution infrastructure.Many at Sukhoi who have had contact with Boeing affectionately call the US airframer their "elder brother".
Sergei Shkryabun, head of Sukhoi's Komsomolsk-on-Amur division in Far Eastern Russia where the SSJ's final assembly line is located, reports that Boeing's advice on technological and management aspects has been invaluable and easily adapted to its unique production environment. "Komsomolsk is not a clone of a Boeing assembly line. Still, we implemented some radical changes following their advice such as the establishment of single production units to make configuration management as flexible and convenient for the airline customer even at the final stage of production."
The next coup was the the Paris air show announcement that Sukhoi was to form a joint venture with Alenia to not only support and market the SSJ but also critically to provide aftersales support. The joint venture will be based in Italy, 51%-owned by Alenia with Sukhoi holding the remaining 49%. This was accompanied by the formalised participation by the Italian aerospace business in the SSJ programme when it agreed to take a 25% stake, plus one share, in Sukhoi Civil Aircraft.
Carlo Logli, Alenia's senior vice-president for strategy and business development, has told Flight International that the joint venture - due to be launched imminently - will be called SuperJet International.
He believes any claim to command competitive respect in a keenly contested marketplace will centre on designing not only a cost-effective product but one that is easy to operate and maintain based on standards which Western operators have come to expect. He says speed is therefore essential and that SuperJet International will be operational no later than September, just 14 months before the delivery of first aircraft to Aeroflot in November next year.
With the production ramp up of the SSJ pegged at nine aircraft in 2008, 30 aircraft in 2009 and 60 aircraft by 2010, Logli says the objective of having a robust aftersale infrastructure from the outset will not come cheap.
"The level of investment is around $100 million and much of that has to be in place from day one," he says. "For us there will be little difference between one aircraft to support and a whole fleet of aircraft. The initial headcount will be 250 by the entry into service of the first aircraft and we will add only another 100 people by the time the SuperJet programme reaches peak production in 2015."
He says that - notwithstanding the SSJ's outstanding performance and progress as it approaches first flight - Western aftercare by necessity demands a fully automated warehouse system, and 24h support and training centres in both Russia and Italy.
"Russian aftersales support has historically been weak. That is why we are starting our campaign 14 months before the entry into service of the first aircraft," says Logli, who adds that SuperJet International's launch will feature a heavyweight promotional campaign including visits to potential airline customers.
That campaign will no doubt build on Sukhoi's efforts to consult directly with operators through its airline advisory board. In mid-May, the seventh board meeting was held in Moscow, where Russian and foreign airlines including Aeroflot, Air France, AiRUnion, CSA, KLM, Lufthansa and GTK Russia met to discuss what they considered the most urgent questions: pilot and technical training centres, aircraft maintenance and logistics infrastructure in Russia, and selection of maintenance providers in Europe, Asia and the Middle East.
All this was a prelude to the most signal development for the SSJ programme - the Paris air show announcement that the twin jet had secured its first Western customer, with Italian carrier ItAli Airlines ordering up to 20 of the long-range, 98-seat version of the aircraft to replace its Boeing MD-80s and Dornier 328Jets.
Sukhoi Civil Aircraft president Viktor Subbotin said that the Italian order brought international credibility to the programme: "With this order the programme receives internationally-acknowledged proof of its feasibility and success potential to offer a product superseding global market competitors."
For Pescara-based ItAli, the SSJ selection will fulfil its strategy of fleet standardisation to deliver substantial economic and operational advantages in a difficult Italian and European operating environment.
Roberto Polles is group head of technical operations of ItAli parent Aeroservices, which though its SAN division carries out line maintenance for Boeing 737s, MD-80s and Dornier 328Jets. With SSJ deliveries to start in December 2009 with all 10 firmly ordered aircraft in service by 2011, Polles agrees that infrastructure needs should be addressed without delay.
Aeroservices plans to carry out SSJ line and base maintenance at its three hangars in Ciampino and Lamezia Terme but it will only be once Sukhoi and ItAli meet later this month to assess frequency of inspection, tooling, space requirements and number of technicians that the full investment picture will be known.
"It will be a completely new airframe and so it will take a lot of engineering input as an operator," says Polles. "Our maintenance reference points have yet to be determined precisely but the involvement of a major Western aerospace business such as Alenia certainly made us take notice. Yes, we are expecting teething problems, but with so much Western technology on board there should be not be significantly more problems compared to a new all-Western jet."
The current firm orderbook includes launch customer Aeroflot's orders for 30 95-seat SSJ-95Bs with delivery from November next year with smaller orders from AirUnion, Dalavia, Russian lesssor Financial Leasing Company and ItAli bringing the tally to 71.
Sukhoi is targeting 100 SSJ sales before the year-end, with one, possibly two, Western customers coming on board. This includes what Logli describes as a "very high level customer" over which all are "crossing fingers".
Logli's experience in Russia has left him impressed and anticipating a deeper future collaboration. "We have dealt with Sukhoi for two years and tremendous progress has been made including English fluency among Russian managers and the increasing ease with which they approach international relationships. We could all learn a lot from Russian aerospace with their sheer brilliance in aerodynamics and other technical specialisms."
Winning the west
Key to the Sukhoi Superjet's success beyond Russia will be the credibility of its service and support network. The involvement of Boeing and other partners is crucial
Italian carrier ItAli Airlines' order for the Superjet 100 has boosted Sukhoi's credibility as a civil manufacturer