Fairchild Dornier may be in trouble, but other manufacturers have plans to fill any void left by the US-German company

The threatened demise of Fairchild Dornier could open the door for another would-be regional aircraft manufacturer to challenge the dominance of Bombardier and Embraer. There are three other rival regional-jet programmes that until now have been largely confined to paper studies but which, with the necessary financial and technical support, could emerge to challenge for the 35 to 50-seat and 55 to 90-seat market segments.

While Airbus and Boeing have periodically voiced their lack of interest in competing directly in the regional-jet market, this has not stopped either company from offering help to others as leverage for selling their larger aircraft. To this end both have been courting the Russian aerospace industry, with Boeing discussing development of a new 55 to 95-seat Russian Regional Jet (RRJ) with programme leader Sukhoi and its partner Ilyushin, and Airbus parent EADS looking at a 70 to 90-seatversion of the RSK MiG/Tupolev Tu-334.

The former appears to have progressed the furthest, with the next RRJ working group meeting set for mid-June in Moscow to settle major technical issues. This will be followed by a planned launch and selection of major subcontractors in July, according to Sukhoi Civil Aircraft head Andrei Ilyin. The proposed joint venture needs $600 million for airframe and system development and an additional $600-700 million for a new powerplant.

The baseline five-abreast RRJ-75 will seat 75 passengers, have a maximum take-off weight (MTOW) of 36,000kg (79,360lb) and a range of 2,680km (1,450nm). A proposed 55-seat shrink version, removing 3.26m (10.7ft) fore and aft of the wing, will have a 32,770kg MTOW. Also under consideration is a 95-seat model, the RRJ-95, with the addition of two 1.63m fuselage plugs. The family will share a common landing gear and 26.24m-span wing, with a 70m2 (755ft2) area.

Extended-range versions of all three aircraft are envisaged: the RRJ-55LR, -75LR and -95LR with respective MTOWs of 35,980kg, 39,940kg and 43,500kg. The RRJ-55LR will offer a range of around 5,000km. "We will keep everything as common as possible. Some strengthening might be required for the higher-weight versions," Ilyin says.

Potential engine suppliers are being asked for a certificated powerplant that complies with International Civil Aviation Organisation Chapter 4 noise rules with a margin of over 3-5dB, along with a willingness to participate as a risk-sharing partner.

Engine contenders

Contenders include the General Electric CF34-8, Pratt & Whitney Canada PW800 (being offered with Aviadvigatel) Rolls-Royce BR710 and Snecma/NPO Saturn SM146. Ukraine's ZMKB Progress has not yet made an offer of the AI-22 or D-36/436 engines, "but it still can", says Ilyin. Local production is a requirement to avoid heavy import taxes and remain competitive.

The aircraft will be designed primarily for Russian and CIS operators, but will also compete with the Embraer 170/190 and Fairchild Dornier 729/928 on the international market. "Our advantage will be an integral one; we are planning to offer customers the same or better performance in every field, including after-sales support and maintenance, all supported by a lower sticker price," claims Ilyin.

Sukhoi is negotiating with 12 Russian and three CIS airlines, while Boeing "is talking to its major customers in the USA", claims Ilyin. First deliveries are targeted for the first quarter of 2007. The Russian market is estimated to be "at least 150 units" and the international market is forecast at around 500 aircraft by 2020. Boeing, in addition to providing international sales and marketing support, will assist Sukhoi in development, Western certification, after-sales support and maintenance.

In April, Russia signed a co-operative agreement with China covering the joint development of civil aircraft. Although no details have been finalised, the signatories were the Chinese Commission of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence (COSTIND) and Russia's aviation and space agency, Rosaviakosmos. "The agreement will allow China to participate jointly with Russia in the development of a new generation of civil aircraft," Chinese state media reports.

Moscow is the latest in a long line of prospective partners to propose a joint venture aerospace development with China. Few have produced any tangible results. China, having abandoned hopes of building its own mid-size passenger aircraft years ago, has been looking for outside help to develop a regional jet. Earlier this year Zhang Hongbiao, COSTIND vice-minister of state, reaffirmed through local media that "production of regional airliners is the nation's best bet as the aviation industry currently lacks the capability to produce larger aircraft competitively".

China's air transport industry has a burgeoning demand for regional jets, which a state information centre senior economist projected would exceed 580 aircraft by 2020. State-owned manufacturing giants China Aviation Industry (AVIC I) and China Aviation Industry (AVIC II) harbour ambitions to build their own regional-jet families. The two hope their new aircraft types can be flying early in the second half of this decade and have said they are open to partnerships with the three main international manufacturers of modern regional jets or other groups.

AVIC I, which has a bigger civilian market presence than AVIC II, has for years been working to develop a regional jet family dubbed the ARJ21, although work has progressed little beyond the initial stages. The family would comprise 70- and 90-seat aircraft and require a powerplant rated at 14,000-17,000lb-thrust (62-76kN). In November AVIC I signed a collaborative agreement with R-R to study jointly use of the BR710 turbofan to power the ARJ21, while GE is proposing its CF34-8.

AVIC I claimed at the China Aviation Expo 2001 trade show in Beijing last September that work on the ARJ21 had progressed from the feasibility stage to pre-development and that the initial 79-seat derivative would fly for the first time in late 2005. Entry into service would occur a year later. Initial drawings of the ARJ21 reveal a Boeing 717-type design, similar to the earlier MD-80/90 built under licence in Shanghai.

The design features twin, rear fuselage mounted engines, a T-tail and a five-abreast cabin cross-section. More details are expected to be released at the Zhuhai air show in November. AVIC II, meanwhile, claims it has Beijing's blessing to pursue development of a 30- to 50-seat regional jet. According to general manager Zhang Yanzhong, a "suitable foreign partner" has yet to be chosen, although this is due to be decided soon. Little solid information has been released and AVIC II's plans are shrouded in secrecy. It is known to have held talks with Fairchild Dornier on the possible production of the proposed 528JET in China, although this is now in doubt. Bombardier and Embraer have also discussed parts-manufacturing deals with AVIC I and AVIC II.

Alliance on course

Embryonic US regional manufacturer Alliance Aircraft says it is on course to produce the 35-seat member of its proposed SL100 regional-jet family in China, together with Harbin Aircraft. With parent group AVIC II still saying it is still looking for a foreign partner, however, its commitment to Alliance could be considered shaky. "We signed a co-development contract with Harbin at the Paris air show and we're continuing to work with them under that contract," insists Earl Robinson, Alliance founder and chief executive.

No details have been released about how much, if anything, China is contributing to the $325 million Alliance says is needed to develop the SL100-35 and stretched 44-seat -44 variant and 50-seat -50 variants. Harbin plans to assemble the smaller version in China for the global market and supply structures for the other two aircraft, which will be built at a new plant in Martinsburg, West Virginia. Alliance says its has memoranda of agreement in place with Lockheed Martin Argentina to supply the cockpit, Castle Aero of Spain to supply the empennage and Korean Aerospace for the wing and, possibly, the centre fuselage.

"We've done pretty well raising money and I think the success of this programme is now assured," says Robinson, a former Fairchild Dornier executive. Prospective system suppliers include P&WC with the PW308 turbofan, Rockwell Collins with the Pro Line 21 avionics suite and Honeywell's environment control system and auxiliary power unit.

Alliance's latest schedule calls for the line-up of partner suppliers to be finalised by September, ahead of a preliminary design review later in the year, cutting metal around May and flying the first aircraft by end-2003. Robinson is banking the SL100-35's success on the merit of it being a double bubble design with an underfloor luggage hold and the fact that the only other purpose-designed 35-seat jet in production is Fairchild Dornier's - and that company is in receivership.

Source: Flight International