WORLD AIRLINERS: Russia bids to best the west

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Greater access to the market for Western-built aircraft has left the Russian commercial aircraft industry increasingly vulnerable, and uncertainty is clouding prospects for two domestic programmes: the medium-haul Tupolev Tu-204 and long-haul Ilyushin Il-96.

Sales have been historically pitiful compared with Western equivalents. The combined orderbook for both types would barely exceed one month's production at Airbus.

Just seven Tu-204s and Tu-214s were delivered last year, and only five of these went to airline customers: Red Wings, Transaero, Cubana and Air Koryo. The other pair were both special-mission Tu-214SR airframes, handed to the air wing of the Russian presidential office.

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Just seven Tupolev Tu-204/214s were delivered last year. Picture: Tupolev
While this year has seen occasional delivery of Tu-204s, including a pair of -100C freighters to Aviastar-Tu and a VIP-configured -300A, Transaero's planned introduction of 10 Tu-214s appears to have stalled after three aircraft.

With the Boeing 737, 757 and Airbus A320 family in the fleets of several Russian carriers, Tupolev's best effort to keep the Tu-204 line open centres on the modernised Tu-204SM.

Atlant-Soyuz and lessor Ilyushin Finance concluded a preliminary agreement for 15 aircraft last year. But doubts have emerged over the viability of the programme - even by the glacial pace of Tu-204 production - following indications that Atlant-Soyuz has cooled on acquiring the type over its cost.

Tupolev has been in discussions with suppliers of the component parts of the aircraft and it says these companies have "confirmed their interest in the continuation of the programme".

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It adds that they are "ready to share the financial risks of serial production" which would be borne otherwise by the Aviastar final assembly plant at Ulyanovsk.

Tupolev says that the negotiations with state corporation Rostekhnologii and other equipment suppliers suggest that - conditional on an agreement with Ilyushin Finance for a production run of 44 aircraft to 2016 - the cost of the type could be reduced by 27-30%.

Tupolev argues that the aircraft, with its updated avionics and newly developed Aviadvigatel PS-90A2 engines, is a competitive product for a Russian airline market hammered by an economic slump.

"It is already possible today to estimate the advantages of the Tu-204SM, according to its technical flight characteristics," says Tupolev. The company claims it will offer a 10-12% benefit in fuel efficiency and maintenance costs compared with the baseline aircraft.

Tupolev says a three-week round of discussions with the type's key suppliers have "confirmed the economic feasibility of starting serial production on this aircraft".

Engine firm Perm Motors delivered the first Aviadvigatel PS-90A2 engines to the test aircraft (RA-64150) in July, ahead of certification flights. The company expects the aircraft will be certificated in 2011.

As well as trying to secure the future of the Tu-204, Ilyushin Finance has been instrumental in keeping prospects alive for the Il-96. Just four Il-96s were delivered by United Aircraft last year, one to Rossiya and three - all of which were the -400T freighter variant - to Voronezh-based cargo transport company Polet.

Polet has just agreed with Ilyushin Finance terms for the delivery of a fourth example of the four-engined cargo jet. Under this 15-year lease agreement, initially drawn up in February this year, the aircraft will be delivered to the carrier in March 2011.

The airline is the only operator of the type, which it uses on routes between Europe and Asia, and says it has increased its utilisation of its three examples to 150-180h a week.

Polet took the opportunity to acquire the Il-96-400T last year - after Aeroflot backed away from a six-aircraft deal in a dispute over the type's performance - and claims their operation is profitable.

But while Polet has an option on the remaining two, they might yet be taken up by the Russian flag carrier. Aeroflot, which was criticised by Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin earlier this year for its reluctance to acquire domestically built aircraft, has disclosed that it is in talks with Ilyushin Finance over taking a pair of Il-96-400Ts over 2012-13.

Aeroflot board member Leonid Dushatin says the -400T is technically suitable, adding: "There are incentives in terms of lease rates and no clearance costs, as would be the case if [Aeroflot] decided to import Western freighters."

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