Sukhoi has made a major breakthrough in its bid to secure an international customer base for its Superjet 100 regional jet, landing a commitment from Hungarian flag carrier Malev for 30 aircraft.

The deal was disclosed at the show by new Malev chief Martin Gauss and representatives of Superjet International, a joint venture created by Sukhoi and programme partner Alenia Aeronautica to market the regional jet.

Malev has signed a letter of intent to purchase 15 of the type and take 15 options. Gauss says the aircraft "perfectly matches" the airline's network.

Aeroflot has become a close partner to Malev in the past few months, and is already a Superjet customer. However, Malev insists that the Russian airline did not influence its selection of the type. Gauss told Flight Daily News that its Superjet decision was "independent" of Aeroflot.

He expects to firm the order by the end of this year. Deliveries will begin in the second half of 2011 and the carrier expects to receive six aircraft per year.

"In its revised, long-term fleet restructuring programme Malev forecasts that the airline will register growth in the next decade and it will require more aircraft than at present," says Gauss.

Malev currently operates Boeing 737s, Bombardier Q400s and Fokker 70s, but is selling the Fokker fleet. Gauss says the airline has yet to decide whether the Superjets will replace any of its other aircraft.

The baseline configuration of the PowerJet SaM146-equipped twinjet is 98 seats, but Gauss says Malev's cabin layout has not been fully defined. He confirms, however, that the aircraft will be two-class.

Malev and Superjet International value the agreement at up to $1 billion. "We're confident that, by the time we have to pay for it, we'll have the financing," adds Gauss.

Superjet will cement Malev's role as a regional airline out of Budapest, says Gauss. The Oneworld alliance member carrier has already withdrawn from long-haul routes.

The Malev deal was revealed shortly after the Superjet 100 made its air show debut. A display was performed by the second prototype, 95003, which had arrived at Le Bourget last week.

At a briefing before the display, Sukhoi chief Mikhail Pogosyan confidently predicted a firm backlog of 150 by the end of this year.

Before the Malev deal, Sukhoi had 98 Superjet 100s on order. Serial production has started on 13. First deliveries are still scheduled for the end of this year, says Pogosyan, with the first four twinjets going to Armavia and Aeroflot.

Pogosyan says Sukhoi intends to achieve a production rate of 70 aircraft a year by 2012 as it bids to secure 20% of the regional aircraft market.

He says the manufacturer will initially concentrate on South-East Asia and eastern Europe, but adds: "With the progress of the programme we can go west."

Sukhoi is still aiming for certification of the Superjet in November. A third flight-test prototype, out of a group of four, is set to join the evaluation programme in July.

Source: Flight Daily News