Tycoon Alexander Lebedev, owner of Russia's Red Wings, is still holding back from a firm commitment to launch the latest version of the Tupolev Tu-204 unless he receives a guarantee of financial concessions and aftersales support from the Russian government and manufacturer.
This is despite a joint announcement at the Bahrain air show that Red Wings and Tupolev were proceeding towards a first delivery of the Tu-204SM early next year as part of an "initial purchase" of 10 to 15 examples by the charter airline. Red Wings already operates five current versions of the Tu-204, as well as three older variants, and had one of its aircraft on display at the show.
Speaking to Flightglobal at the event, Lebedev said he was "ready to give my support to Russian industry, but the problem is still product support". He added: "If that problem is not solved I will not continue."
A year ago, Red Wings said it would commit to 44 Tu-204SMs, but "that was under condition that the price would be the same as the equivalent Airbus or Boeing and that there would be guarantees on residual value, technical data and support, and that was something they could not do," said Lebedev, who is also a shareholder in Aeroflot and whose business interests include UK newspapers and Russia's main opposition newspaper.
Tupolev, which is part of Russia's United Aircraft Corporation, describes the Tu-204SM as a "modern day Russian aircraft". The aircraft are assembled by Ulyanovsk-based airframer Aviastar.
Changes from the current version include a two-pilot cockpit, new avionics and upgraded Aviadvigatel PS-90A2 engines. Tupolev said it expects a market in Russia for up to 200 of the type and that it has pre-contract agreements and is "at an advanced stage of negotiations" with "seven to nine" airlines.
The manufacturer also said the Middle East region "is promising", although political hurdles make it difficult to secure export deals in two potential markets, Iran and Syria. Syrian Arab Airlines has expressed interest in acquiring the Tu-204SM because the sanction-hit state carrier cannot obtain new Airbus jets.
The Tu-204SM programme is seen as a hugely important symbol of Moscow's ambitions for its aerospace industry to compete with Western airframers in the domestic market across all categories of airliner. The success of the Sukhoi Superjet has shown that the country can still manufacture aircraft with an international appeal, albeit with the involvement of foreign industrial partners.