The Superjet 100 (SSJ) programme may be off to a good start in its native Russia - with over 60 orders from three airlines including flag carrier Aeroflot as well as Russian lessor Finance Leasing - but the real test for Sukhoi's newest offering will be its success in the international market.
Sukhoi Aviation Holding's director general Michail Pogosyan expects that more than half of the 800 SSJ sales forecast over the next 20 years will come from international customers. While this may seem extremely optimistic for a Russian airframer, Pogosyan points to several key elements of the SSJ programme that sets it apart from its CIS-built predecessors.
"The first key point is that we are creating a product with input from international authorities who have participated since the beginning of the programme in 2003. And we have an airline advisory board that includes European flag carriers such as Air France/KLM, Alitalia, Brussels Airlines, Czech Airlines, Iberia, Lufthansa, Scandinavian Airlines [SAS] and Turkish Airlines," he says.
Sukhoi claims the SSJ has a significant operating cost advantage over its rivals
SCAC has held six advisory board meetings so far, the most recent of which was in Rome last November. The next will be held in Moscow in May. Pogosyan believes the SSJ will be in demand internationally as its design is "superior to the existing offerings in the market" from Bombardier and Embraer. "For example, the SSJ will have significantly lower operating costs - our target is to be 10-15% better - and its wider cabin will offer more comfort," he says.
Jorgen Lindegaard, former head of SSJ airline advisory group member SAS, last year described the SSJ as a "very interesting aircraft" with a "very interesting price". Sukhoi says the SSJ's catalogue price is $27.8 million, undercutting its direct rivals, the Embraer 190 and 195, by 18-22%.
Part of the SSJ's advantage comes from the low cost of touch labour in Siberia where the aircraft is produced, but Pogoysan is keen to shatter any illusions that the SSJ's quality will not be on a par with its Western rivals, pointing out that the SSJ's systems are being built by "leading international suppliers to Airbus and Boeing". Lindegaard concurs: "When you look at the components, is it a Russian aircraft? There's at least a Russian screwdriver involved." And even those "screwdrivers" are the latest available, says Pogoysan. "The product is being manufactured using modern technology - the KnAAPO production plant has just undergone a major refurbishment."
Despite Lindegaard's apparent enthusiasm, SAS says it does not have any urgent need for an aircraft in the SSJ's category, although when it does the Russian jet will be evaluated: "We don't exclude anything," it says. With Air France/KLM participating as an advisory group member, it is seen as a potential SSJ customer, and Snecma's key role in the programme is sure to hold some sway with France's flag carrier.
Powerjet's Michel Déchelotte is optimistic about the future for the aircraft. "We are making a conservative assumption that the SSJ will capture about 20% of the market - 800 aircraft, so around 2,000 engines. This is conservative, particularly as the possibility of the 110-seat member of the family has not been taken into consideration."
He adds: "We can already clearly see the preference for the 95-seater over the 75-seater - airlines are shooting for larger aircraft. That's why we think it's absolutely vital that the 110-passenger aircraft [stretch] should be offered."
Keeping a close watch
While Air France says it is not looking directly at the aircraft at the moment, its subsidiaries Britair, Regional and Cityjet are in the process of renewing their fleets. "We are attentive to aerospace production wherever it takes place," the airline says, adding that it is watching developments in Russia closely "out of curiosity".
The smaller-scale Western suppliers on board are optimistic too. "Russia will be an important market in the future, and the SSJ has very good export potential if it achieves European certification as planned," Liebherr Aerospace says.
Thales, which is supplying avionics and simulators, says it "believes in the business model" of the SSJ and that there are "good signs things are moving in terms of airlines, both Russian and foreign. The aircraft will be certificated according to European and US standards and will have chances for success in European and US markets. Serious airlines have expressed interest."
Throughout the industry there is a sense of optimism about the SSJ programme. George Burton, director of consultancy Counterpoint Market Intelligence, does not consider Sukhoi's confidence misplaced: "There is nothing wrong with Russian aerodynamics," he says, adding that Western airlines will take confidence from the fact that most of the equipment on board is supplied by Western manufacturers.
Analyst Matheus Salvadori of Frost & Sullivan questions Pogosyan's view that the majority of SSJ deliveries will go to overseas customers, with Russian-owned airlines accounting for just 30% of sales. Although the relatively high list price (by Russian standards) may be one barrier to more Russian ownership of the aircraft, he also sees competition within Russia from Antonov and Tupolev.
Undoubtedly, the high presence of Western suppliers will help foreign airlines overcome any reservations they have about buying a Russian aircraft, he says.
Selling a brand
While Sukhoi's reputation in the military sector is well-established, in civil aerospace "they have to sell a brand - having Western companies [involved] will help them do this", says Salvadori.
But doubts may remain: the absence of a truly comprehensive aftersales and support network outside Russia may be harder for potential customers to ignore, he warns. While competitors Bombardier and Embraer are able to provide spare parts to aircraft worldwide within tight timescales, Salvadori is "not sure the Russians will be able to - this will be one of the main concerns". But with firm Russian political support for the venture, none of these political difficulties are insurmountable.