Fresh designs promise answer to evolving market demands

 - November 26, 2007, 12:43 PM

As the global economy slows and sales of current-generation regional jets reach a plateau, new designs conceived during the height of the regional-jet spending spree stand ready to vie for market acceptance at a time when ambivalence prevails throughout the industry. For the first time in recent memory, explicit evidence of a lull in demand for regional airplanes has surfaced, as this year’s orders lag behind the record rate of last year and one of the big regional-jet manufacturers prepares to curb production output.

But despite the apparent slowdown, other factors stand to cushion the blow to the regional sector in particular. For one, the strain on the world’s air-transportation system caused by capacity saturation continues to present a long-term challenge to governments and operators alike. As runway and airway capacity dwindles, manufacturers surmise, regional airline growth must come from larger airplanes and longer stage lengths rather than more frequency. In fact, some argue that an economic slump will encourage major carriers to “outsource” more flying to their regional affiliates or directly replace their marginally economic single-aisle models with still smaller airplanes, creating newfound demand for larger, new-generation regional jets.

Still, disagreement as to the extent of future demand has resulted in projects of varying ambition, from the all-new “clean-sheet” designs by Embraer and Fairchild Dornier to less risky derivatives from Bombardier and BAE Systems. The following report encapsulates those, as well as the rest of the industry’s new offerings.

Airbus
A318–Airbus Industrie began final assembly of the first Airbus A318 at its plant in Hamburg, Germany, on August 9, when it joined the 107-seat jet’s forward and aft fuselage sections. The A318, the smallest member of the A320 family, will become the third Airbus type assembled outside the company’s primary plant in Toulouse, France. Airbus also builds the A319 and A321 in Germany. A shrunken variant of the A319, itself a smaller version of the A320, the A318 features a taller vertical stabilizer for better lateral stability. Also, instead of using rivets, Airbus for the first time welded the stabilizing stringers to the fuselage shells with a laser beam, a process meant to speed manufacturing, reduce weight and control corrosion.

Slated for JAA certification and first deliveries late next year, the A318 has now drawn claimed firm orders for 136 copies from 10 customers–none of which meet the generally accepted definition of a regional airline. Originally billed as Airbus’ first regional jet, the 107-seat A318 instead appears destined for current A320 operators drawn by the commonality attributes the smallest Airbus offers over its primary competitor–the Boeing 717-200. Faced with scope-clause barriers in the U.S. and airport fee constraints in Europe, the 131,000-lb-mtow twinjet sports mainline weight and performance specifications, although Airbus insists it can also find a niche among regional airlines.

Although Airbus first planned to offer only the new Pratt & Whitney PW6000 as the standard powerplant in the A318, pressure from one of its most sought-after customers–Air France–convinced the company to adapt the CFM56 engine for the A318 as well. That decision sealed a commitment for 15 units from the French flag carrier, which balked at the lack of commonality inherent in the standard airplane’s PW6000s.

Scheduled to fly next January, the first PW6000-powered A318 will likely enter service with one of International Lease Finance Company’s lessees by the end of next year, followed by the CFM56-powered version in the second half of 2003 with Air France.

Alliance Aircraft
SL-100/200/300/400–At press time employing some 55 people at its new offices in Martinsburg, W.Va., Alliance Aircraft has survived yet another near-death experience thanks to a fresh injection of capital earmarked for a new family of regional jets, ranging from 35 to 50 seats in capacity. Undeterred after his quest for capital went unfulfilled for nearly two years, Alliance chairman Earl Robinson forged a partnership with China’s Harbin Aircraft during June’s Paris Air Show that gives the AVIC II subsidiary exclusive production rights for the 35-seat SL-100-35 and responsibility for building Chinese variants of the 44- and 50-seat versions of the airplanes, known as the SL-100-44 and SL-100-50. Meanwhile, Alliance plans to build SL-100-44s and -50s for the world market in Martinsburg.

As part of the deal, the Chinese have agreed to place a firm order for 50 SL-100s and options for another 250, according to Robinson. He stressed that the contract does not constitute an offset deal, and that Harbin took an equity stake in Alliance in exchange for its financial backing and engineering help. Harbin planned to send the first 10 of 60 Chinese engineers to Alliance’s West Virginia offices by the end of August. Now occupying a 30,000-sq-ft office building at Martinsburg’s John D. Rockefeller Industrial Park, Alliance plans to build a 400,000-sq-ft assembly plant and a new 125,000-sq-ft office building at the location with help from the Beckley County Development Authority. According to Robinson, the authority granted incentives related to capital leases, equipment and training, as well as tax credits to attract Alliance to the state.

Now scheduled for FAA and JAA certification by the end of October  2004, the
SL-100 program calls for critical design reviews to start this winter, in time for first flight in August 2003. Meanwhile, Robinson continues his search for a commitment to finance his 70- to 110-seat SL-200, 300 and 400 programs, certification schedules for which remain less certain. Upon announcing the launch of the SL-100 during last year’s Farnborough Air Show, Robinson signed a memorandum of understanding with Sukhoi that gave the Russian builder design and assembly responsibility for the 70-seat SL-200. That deal disintegrated last November, however, when Alliance’s precarious financial position prompted the Russians to end the relationship.

Alliance’s SL-100 concept uses as a baseline powerplant the Honeywell AS900 turbofan. The subject of divestiture speculation since European Commission officials began to scrutinize the now defunct General Electric-Honeywell merger, the AS900 powers the BAE Systems Avro RJX85 prototype and the Bombardier Continental business jet. To list for $15.5 million, the 50-seat version of the SL-100 will offer a range of 2,000 nm, an mtow of 51,230 lb and a max thrust rating of 8,500 lb. 
 
Antonov
An-74TK-300–First flown in April, Antonov’s latest An-74 variant–the An-74TK-300–disposes of the family’s most distinguishing design feature, namely engine pylons mounted on top of the wings. For the new model, engineers instead opted for a more traditional under-wing engine design, resulting in less drag, higher lift-to-weight ratio and reduced fuel burn.

Designers of the original An-74s chose to place the engines on top of the wings to meet military requirements for STOL performance. The configuration produces a Coanda effect for better lift and protects the engines from debris during takeoff and landing. Potential regional airline customers have expressed a clear preference for less fuel burn and better cruise performance, however, leading to the devel-
opment of the An-74TK-300.

While cruising at 324 kt, the new variant burns 19 percent less fuel than older models, according to Antonov. At 82,670 lb mtow, the airplane also features a higher max takeoff weight than the An-74TK-200, whose specifications show an mtow of 80,470 lb.

Displayed publicly for the first time during June’s Paris Air Show, the An-74TK-300 uses the same Progress D36 turbofans found on earlier models. However, the new version uses thrust reversers, as well as new avionics, such as a Ukrainian-made SM3301 dual GPS receiver, a 150-parameter BUR-92 flight data recorder, an Orlan VHF radio with 8.33-kHz channel spacing, an Arlekin long-range HF radio and a G-002M FMS.

Although the prototype displayed in Paris uses the same 52-seat fuselage as older models, Antonov plans to stretch the tube to seat 60 to 68 passengers and increase the airplane’s ferry range from 2,484 nm to 2,835 nm, thus maintaining a 60-passenger range of 1,620 nm. The An-74TK-300’s flight-test program calls for 300 to 400 flights over a one-year period to satisfy Russian NLGS-3 certification criteria.

An-140–Designed as a replacement for the popular but outdated An-24, the Antonov An-140 has, like most former Soviet bloc civil programs, suffered its share of financial and technical setbacks from its inception. When Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma arrived on Sept. 12, 1997, at Antonov’s headquarters in Kiev to celebrate the company’s 50th anniversary and witness the An-140’s maiden flight, the 52-seat turboprop’s starboard engine cooling system failed, covering the airplane with dense smoke and postponing the event for five days. The Ukrainian president reportedly left the celebration in an ugly mood.

Five days later the airplane finally lifted off and flew for an hour without incident, marking the start of what would become a relatively short (by CIS standards) two-and-a-half year flight-test program. Although Antonov planned to have completed all test flights in the 46- to 52-passenger An-140 by the end of 1999, a runway overrun during the first prototype’s 912th test flight damaged the landing gear, delaying the program’s completion until late April last year, when, after seven years of bureaucratic wrangling and budget shortfalls the airplane gained its CIS certification.

Now building the first production An-140s at the KhGAPP factory in Kharkov, Ukraine, Antonov handed over the second example to its daughter company, Antonov Airlines, in early July. A third aircraft entered the fleet of Ukraine’s IKAR Airlines later in the summer, while the first prototype with a larger wing continued flying for the Antonov design house as an experimental model.

Antonov signed an agreement with Iran’s state-owned HESA factory in Isfahan that gives the Islamic Republic An-140 assembly rights. Under the reported $1- to $1.5 billion contract, HESA will assemble 80 An-140s, the first of which flew early this year. HESA may eventually fit Iranian An-140s with Klimov TV7-117S turboprops, a license for which Iran acquired to build locally. Antonov had planned combined production in Kharkov and the Aviacor factory in Samara, Russia, to reach 30 by the end of this year, but funding shortages have curtailed those aspirations considerably.
Developed by Ukrainian powerplant makers ZMKB Progress and Motor Sich under a respective agreement with Klimov, the An-140’s standard Klimov TV-117VMA-SB2 turboprops trace their design lineage from the turboshaft engines used on the Kamov Ka-32 helicopter. Driving a pair of six-blade Aerosyla propellers, the Klimov powerplants produce 2,466 shp each.

Boeing
717-100X–A proposed shrunken variant of Boeing’s 106-seat 717-200, the 86-passenger 717-100X has settled into a latent period since designers first contemplated the project more than two years ago. Originally slated for market launch by the end of last year, the Rolls-Royce BR715-powered “paper airplane” remains in utero while the company tries to uncover enough demand to justify its development costs.

Program management had hoped to decide on the proposed new variant late last year at a “special attention meeting” of Boeing Commercial Airplanes president Alan Mullaly’s leadership team. Although Boeing’s Current Market Outlook shows a need for some two thousand 70- to 90-seat regional jets over the next 20 years, the company must share the market with four established regional-jet manufacturers–Bombardier, Embraer, Fairchild Dornier and BAE Systems. Now offering the 717-200 for prices that by most accounts barely produce break-even margins, the company remains loath to commit to a shrunken variant before it convinces itself it can lower costs at its Long Beach, Calif. facility to profitable levels.
 
Although wind-tunnel tests to date show a need for few changes aside from extending the 717-200’s horizontal stabilizer to counter the loss of stability caused by airflow interference between the centroids of the wings and tail, 717 marketing director Rolf Sellge said an effort to improve field performance by 10 percent had drawn a proposal for changing the angle or shape of the airplane’s wing flaps.
However, during an interview with AIN last year, 717 program manager Jerry Callaghan questioned the need for such improvements, given the current version’s 5,500-ft takeoff field length (mtow, sl, 30 deg C) and 4,650-ft landing field length (mlw, sl), which allow it to operate into and out of most regional destinations in North America and Europe.

Callaghan cautioned that too many changes to the airplane could render it economically infeasible. A better business case, he said, may rest with a 125-seat variant known as the 717-300X, particularly as airlines such as new 717-200 customer Midwest Express show serious interest in the larger version. Engineering studies have concentrated on adding a 95-in. plug in front of the wing and a 57-in. section behind the wing. The larger 717 would feature more powerful 22,000-lb-thrust BR700 variants, strakes on the nose, a cambered leading edge on the tailplane and thicker wing skins.

Bombardier Aerospace
Canadair Regional Jet Series 700–After gaining Transport Canada, JAA and FAA certification of the new Canadair Regional Jet Series 700, Canada’s Bombardier this year became the first manufacturer to field a 70-seat regional jet since the bankrupt Fokker closed production of the ill-fated Fokker 70 in 1997. A stretched variant of the 50-seat Canadair Regional Jet, the new 70-seater also earned the same aircraft type rating as its smaller sibling, allowing CRJ-100 and -200 pilots to fly the CRJ-700 after a three-day differences training course consisting solely of classroom instruction and brief time in a systems trainer.

On January 31 Bombardier shipped the first customer aircraft, S/N 10006, to launch customer Brit Air of Morlaix, France. One of three European customers for the new 70-seater, Brit Air placed four CRJ-700s in service over the summer. But while Brit Air experienced a comparatively smooth introduction of its new CRJ variant, Bombardier’s North American launch customer, Horizon Air, suffered certification problems related to the airplane’s flight data recorder that delayed its entry into service until August. So far drawing firm orders for 175 copies, Bombardier counts among its customer ranks American Eagle, Atlantic Southeast Airlines, Comair, Delta Connection, GE Capital Aviation Services, Horizon Air and Mesa Air Group from the U.S., European airlines Lufthansa and Maersk Air; and China’s Shandong Airlines.
  
The CRJ-700 flight-test program, which logged some 1,600 test hours in five airplanes since first flight on May 27, 1999, confirmed all published performance data established at program launch in 1997. However, the airplane’s operating empty weight (OEW) measures 120 lb less than the original published OEW. Flight tests also showed that the CRJ-700 generates some 3 percent less drag than original estimates. As a result, Bombardier stretched the airplane’s maximum cruise speed to Mach 0.825, compared with the original specification of Mach 0.815. The decrease in drag has also improved expected climb performance, increasing payload by 4,000 lb with a 20-deg flap setting and 3,700 lb with 10 deg flaps at takeoff. At the long-range version’s mtow of 75,000 lb, the CRJ-700 now shows a takeoff field length of 5,406 ft, some 100 ft shorter than originally specified.
 
Bombardier claims that the lighter weight of the CRJ-700 translates into measurable fuel savings, particularly compared with the proposed 70-seat designs by Embraer and Fairchild Dornier, scheduled for certification in December 2002 and mid-2003, respectively. Bombardier estimates typical block fuel burn for a 500-nm mission at 4,290 lb, significantly below both of its prime competitors. However, the Embraer and Fairchild products both offer more spacious cabins and more baggage capacity–attributes vital, they claim, for the longer routes they believe airlines will serve with future 70-seat airplanes.

While Embraer and Fairchild hope to attract major and national airline customers as well as regionals to their nonderivative designs, Bombardier has taken a more restrained approach in developing a fairly straightforward stretch of the 50-seat CRJ. The company holds no illusions about the CRJ-700’s purely regional pedigree, and has decided to abandon any attempt to venture into the mainline market with its proposed 86-seat variant as well.

 Canadair Regional Jet Series 900– Roughly a year after rejecting the commercial viability of a 90-seat addition to its immensely successful Canadair Regional Jet family, Canada’s Bombardier revisited the possibility after consultations with several potential customers, leading to a decision to launch the program at last year’s Farnborough Air Show. Just seven months later, in late February, the 86-seat CRJ-900 took off from Montreal Mirabel International Airport for what crewmembers portrayed as a flawless maiden mission.

The airplane, originally CRJ-700 prototype number 10001, serves as the main platform for systems validation. Bombardier created the new airplane by inserting two fuselage plugs, measuring 90 in. and 62 in., respectively, into the original CRJ-700 fuselage. The company plans to use the second CRJ-900 prototype, scheduled for first flight later this year, for systems validation, baggage compartment certification and environmental noise testing. It expects to convert the third prototype, S/N 15002, into a customer example after it performs passenger emergency evacuation testing late this year.

Introduced on the strength of firm orders for 10 units from GE Capital Aviation Services (GECAS) and options for four airplanes from France’s Brit Air, the CRJ-900 drew its first U.S. customer in March, when Mesa Air Group signed a letter of intent since converted to a firm order for 20 of the 86-seat jets and an option for another 20. 

On schedule for Transport Canada certification in the third quarter of next year, the CRJ-900 will likely reach the market some 18 months earlier than the 108-seat ERJ-190-200 from Embraer and two years before the 95- to 110-seat Fairchild Dornier 928JET flies in revenue service. A minimal stretch of the 70-seat CRJ-700, the $30 million CRJ-900 features the same cross-section, cockpit, wings and tail section as its smaller sibling. It extends some 12 ft beyond the length of the 70-seater, allowing for four extra rows of four-abreast passenger seats.

Other changes include a redesigned center fuselage section to accommodate two more overwing exits, increased volume in the forward underfloor baggage hold, another underfloor baggage door, stronger main landing gear, upgraded wheels and brakes and more powerful GE CF34-8C5 turbofans.

BAE Systems
Avro RJX–Flown for the first time on April 28, the BAE Systems RJX85 has completed five months of test flying, leaving company officials “very confident” of meeting, if not exceeding, the 15- to 20-percent reduction in fuel burn and other performance targets established for the 80- to 112-seat quad-jet. A third-generation variant of British Aerospace’s original BAe 146, the new Honeywell AS907-powered airplane has completed its final tests to clear its full altitude and speed envelope, and has flown at speeds of Mach 0.80 and 360 kias to demonstrate margins over flight-manual capabilities.

Test flying with the new production-standard Honeywell engines stood to expand in late September, when BAE expected a second aircraft–the larger RJX100–to join the 800-hr test program, albeit somewhat later than first planned. BAE originally expected the second prototype would join the program in July, but delays associated with the delivery of the airplane’s engine-nacelle package, or integrated powerplant system (IPPS), foiled those plans. In fact, BAE postponed the maiden flight of the first RJX by five months for similar reasons. To avoid further delays in the certification schedule, BAE will add a third aircraft to the development program, a plan aimed at ensuring service entry with British European [formerly Jersey European Airways] by next April. In March, after moving its certification target from August to December, the company delayed the target date for airworthiness approval by another six weeks, to the first quarter of next year.

To improve durability, Honeywell has upgraded engine hardware as well as Fadec software. Early in the program it modified the engine control software to optimize fuel flow, which previously produced a rich mixture evident in smoky emissions. Initial testing with a single “Block 2” engine immediately demonstrated smoother operation and quicker acceleration, according to Honeywell.

Other benefits include a four- to five-decibel reduction in overall noise footprint and a guaranteed 20-percent reduction in engine maintenance costs. Because of the range improvements, BAE expects operators to reduce their typical takeoff weight by two metric tons (4,409 lb), resulting in significant savings in ATC costs–a particularly valuable feature for the European regional environment.

European carriers and operators in Asia and the south Pacific region stand as BAE Systems’ target markets. The new Avro’s largest customer, British European, in July signed a “definitive contract for up to 20 Avro RJX100s.” The agreement “reconfirmed” a memorandum of understanding covering a firm order for 12 of the airplanes and options on another eight. Until then only global launch customer Druk Air of Bhutan had signed a firm order, having committed to two 85-seat versions in April of last year. Three months later, British Airways franchise operator CityFlyer Express took options on six RJX100s.

Embraer
ERJ-140–Nearly a month after gaining FAA certification on July 26, the Embraer ERJ-140 became the first Western jet specifically built for the 40- to 50-seat category to operate in scheduled service when it completed its maiden revenue flight between Chicago and Chattanooga, Tenn., for American Eagle. Other new customers include Indianapolis-based Chautauqua Airlines and St. Louis-based Trans States, whose new code-share contracts with American Airlines called for more of the 44-seat jets, development of which arose largely as a means to fill the market niche created by the major carrier’s pilot scope clause. Restricted to a great degree by limitations placed on regional jets that carry more than 44 seats, airlines such as American Eagle could expand their fleets indefinitely with the new breed of “mini-jets,” designed specifically to skirt such constraints. However, as the largest U.S. airlines and their pilots find themselves in heated negotiations over new scope language, such restrictions on 50-seat jets appear increasingly fragile, perhaps changing the balance of demand.

The ERJ-140 carries the exact number of seats stipulated as the maximum capacity allowed for unlimited growth at American’s regional affiliates. However, an attempt last year by American Airlines to amend the scope clause to place an absolute cap on capacity at 50 seats while removing all numerical restrictions could have profoundly changed American’s regional-jet procurement plans. If such an amendment were to pass, the artificial demand for 44-seat airplanes would have evaporated, meaning Eagle would likely have converted all its orders for Embraer airplanes to 50-seaters. Thankfully for Embraer, last September 20 American’s pilots rejected the proposal, prompting Eagle to place a launch order for ERJ-140s just days later.

Using a production process similar to that applied to the 37-seat ERJ-135, Embraer builds the ERJ-140 with 95 percent of the same parts used in both its current regional jets. Two central fuselage plugs add 6.5 ft to the cabin length of the ERJ-135, while a Fadec adjustment allows Embraer to use the same Rolls-Royce AE3007A1/3 turbofans that power the 37-seater. Meanwhile, the 44-seat variant will incorporate the same landing gear, tires and brakes now used in the 50-seat ERJ-145.

With Fairchild Dornier’s cancellation of the 44-seat 428JET program last fall, Embraer’s only com- petition in the 44-seat capacity range now comes from reconfigured 50-seat Canadair Regional Jets, a handful of which Bombardier has marketed to Delta Connection carriers Comair and Atlantic Southeast Airlines and, more recently, St. George, Utah-based SkyWest.

ERJ-170/190-100/ 190-200–Now nearly fully assembled, the first iteration of Embraer’s latest regional jet family–the 70-seat ERJ-170– sits ready for rollout from the company’s factory in São José dos Campos later this month and remains on schedule for certification during next year’s third quarter. The airplane entered the world market during the 1999 Paris Air Show, where Switzerland’s Crossair endowed the Brazilian airframe builder with what then constituted the most lucrative order in the history of the regional airline industry–a $4.9 billion contract that included firm orders for thirty 70-seat ERJ-170s and thirty 108-passenger ERJ-190-200s. Since then the company has added a firm order for 2 ERJ-170s from Air Caraibes of Guadaloupe and a 50-unit firm order from GE Capital Aviation Services (GECAS). Most recently, during June’s Paris Air Show, Embraer and Brazil’s TAM signed a memorandum of understanding that calls for a firm order for 25 more ERJ-190-200s.

The family of RJs, which also consists of the 98-seat ERJ-190-100, will consume some $1.2 billion in development funding, one-third of which Embraer CEO Mauricio Botelho said would come from risk-sharing partners, while the Brazilian company splits the remainder with financial institutions. A pair of prominent partners–General Electric, which will supply its CF34-8E turbofan for the ERJ-170 and its CF34-10 for the ERJ-190s, and Honeywell, which will supply its Primus Epic avionics suite for the entire line–will shoulder much of the risk-sharing responsibility. 

During the ERJ-170/190’s detailed design phase, Embraer engineers added winglets to the preliminary design, a modification expected to yield a range increase of 3- to 5 percent and an increase in maximum speed below 10,000 ft to 300 kt. Other changes included an enlarged rear passenger door, a reinforcement to the cargo bay that will allow an additional 74 lb of payload per passenger and an extension of the
ERJ-170’s design lifespan from 60,000 to 80,000 cycles. Although the changes resulted in a basic operating weight increase of 3,306 lb, Embraer claims the improvements more than compensate for the extra weight. Scheduled for initial certification during next year’s third quarter, the ERJ-170 would be the first iteration to reach the market, when Crossair takes delivery of its first copies that December. Embraer expects to gain certification for the ERJ-190-200 in the spring of 2004 and the ERJ-190-100 some 12 to 18 months later.

Fairchild Dornier
528/728/928JET–Introduced at the 1998 Regional Airline Association Convention in Minneapolis, Fairchild Dornier’s family of low-wing regional jets began taking shape this past March, when the company started assembling the first three 728JET fuselages at the company’s primary production facility in Oberpfaffenhofen, Germany. Tasked with mating components built by a host of European and U.S. partners, German engineers took delivery of the first wing built by Spain’s EADS-CASA and the first forward and aft fuselage sections fabricated by SABCA in late August.

Meanwhile, Fairchild has prepared a new production hall for an initial rate of six airplanes per month, and equipped a separate hangar with mating tools and work stands for final assembly and outfitting of five flight-test airplanes. The company plans to conduct final assembly of production aircraft in two new buildings, construction of which it expects to begin later this year.

Derived from Daimler-Benz’ nearly forgotten MPC-75 concept, the 728JET established itself as the foundation upon which the company would build its future when Germany’s Lufthansa Airlines placed a launch order for sixty 70- to 85-seat 728JETs in April 1999. Further anchored at the June 2000 Berlin Air Show by a $1.4 billion firm contract for 50 of the new jets from GECAS and a launch order for four 90- to 105-passenger 928JETs from Bavaria International Leasing, the program has now drawn orders and options for 282 airplanes potentially worth some $7.7 billion.
The 728JET now appears likely to gain its German certification in early 2003, some two years before the line’s second iteration–the 928JET–gains its expected regulatory approvals. The certification plan calls for 1,800 flight hours in five aircraft, as well as additional validation tests in Fairchild Dornier’s engineering test rig (Iron Bird) and engineering simulator.

Fairchild Dornier will use four prototypes and one production airplane–for use primarily in sound measurements and reliability testing–during the year-long flight-test program. Upon deciding on some wing design changes and thrust adjustments, the company now expects to fly the first 928JET in late 2003. Plans for the 55-seat 528JET, which Fairchild originally expected to develop before the 928JET, remain undefined, as the company considers the possibility of offering a stretched version of the 100-seat jet instead.

Before Crossair signed with Embraer for ERJ-170/190s, Fairchild considered the Swiss regional carrier a serious launch candidate for the 728JET family. Finding itself in the delicate position of marketing the airplane with divergent needs, however, the German-American manufacturer could not find a compromise suitable to both and pursued Lufthansa’s requirements for the airplane’s current five-abreast cabin configuration.

Securing the program’s needed funding in April with a deal that saw former CEO Carl Albert’s majority interest sold to Clayton, Dubilier and Rice and Allianz Capital Partners, Fairchild has installed new work platforms, assembly fixtures and a gantry riveting robot at a modernized production facility in Oberpfaffenhofen. In all, the company plans to spend some $1.3 billion developing the three types.

Indonesian Aerospace
N-250–After the FAA in 1996 refused to accept Indonesian Aerospace’s (formerly IPTN) second prototype for flight testing because of poor documentation, the manufacturer began anew and by 1998 had completed half of its 1,400-hr testing program. However, when the International Monetary Fund forced the Indonesian government to withdraw its support of the program, IAe had little choice but to delay Indonesian certification as well, from March 1999 to the fourth quarter of last year, and again indefinitely until it can recruit a risk-sharing partner to contribute $90 million to complete the program.

With lack of funding bringing the program to a near standstill, a third prototype remains dormant. When it flew for the first time in August 1995, the 64-seat Allison AE2100C-powered turboprop featuring fly-by-wire flight controls represented a source of prestige for a country that never before developed and produced an indigenous airplane. But amid the economic and political instability that struck the country during 1998, the international community demanded government largesse to such enterprises as IPTN be stopped as a condition of the IMF’s $43 billion bailout plan.         

N-2130–With the future of the less costly and further advanced N-250 program in serious doubt, continued development of IAe’s proposed 114-passenger N-2130 regional jet appears even less likely. Local shareholders moved to liquidate their investment in the $2 billion project in 1998. Although still officially part of the company’s plans, the N-2130 program remains on hold until IAe secures a risk-sharing partner.    

Let
L-610G–Czech bankruptcy administrator Zlatava Davidova in July awarded the assets of bankrupt Let Kunovice to Czech lightplane manufacturer Moravan Aeroplanes, ostensibly placing the long-foundering L-610G program in the hands of its third owner in three years. Meanwhile, U.S. entrepreneur Randall Brink, aspiring airline chairman and one of three bidders for Let’s assets after Albany, Ga.-based Ayres Corp. lost control of the company this spring, has filed a lawsuit to halt the transfer of the company to Moravan. Brink claims the bankruptcy administrator acted improperly by awarding Let to Moravan after she obstructed the American’s attempts to bid by withholding critical contractual documents.

When Ayres Corp. chairman Fred Ayres negotiated with the Czech government to buy 93 percent of the foundering Let Kunovice in 1998, a tone of cautious optimism tempered creeping suspicion over the U.S. company’s motives. Although many of Let’s workers remained skeptical about Ayres and his plans for Let, any chance for steady work in an economy struggling to adapt to a free-market system seemed better than the likely alternative of unemployment.

Two years later, most of Let’s 1,400 workers found themselves out of work after the commerce court in Brno declared the company bankrupt. Saddled with a mountain of debt incurred both before and after the 1998 takeover and tormented by threats of legal action from disgruntled customers, Ayres failed to deliver on his promise to revitalize the half-century-old manufacturer, leaving a pair of new aircraft programs, including the L-610G, in limbo.

Expected to extend Let’s market reach beyond the natural limitations of the 19-seat L-420 while preserving the line’s short-field and hot-and-high traits, the pressurized 40-seat transport now awaits a fresh injection of funding to complete certification. A GE CT7-9D-powered version of Czech manufacturer Let’s original Walter-powered L-610, the only existing L-610G (known as the Ayres 7000 during the Ayres regime) remains in storage in the U.S., while Let creditors negotiate its ownership status.

Faced with numerous certification delays and program changes since the airplane’s first iteration appeared in 1989 under the stewardship of the Czech government, the L-610G appeared to have drawn its first customer at last November’s Dubai Air Show, when Bujumbura, Burundi-based City Connexion placed an order for two airplanes. A short time later, however, the government of Burundi seized the airline’s banking and gold mining interests, prompting its management to return to Europe post-haste. As if to complicate matters further, the company that brokered the contract–Switzerland’s Airline Partners–opted out of a proposed deal for 30 airplanes that would have given Ayres enough deposit money to proceed with the airplane’s certification. 

A month after a Czech court proclaimed Let bankrupt, Ayres Corp. filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the U.S., leaving its largest creditor, GATX Capital, in control of the company. On August 7, GATX foreclosed on Ayres, changed the company’s name to Quality Aerospace and continued looking for a buyer.

Sukhoi
S-80–After several false starts, AVPK Sukhoi flew its S-80 twin-boom turboprop for the first time on September 4. In development for more than 10 years, the program calls for 80 to 100 flights to assess aerodynamics and controllability during the first round of testing, while certification trials would require some 800 sorties and 30 months to complete. Built at the KnAAPO factory in Komsomolsk-upon-Amur and shipped to the Sukhoi experimental aircraft factory in Moscow this past winter, the S-80 prototype most recently underwent a fuselage stretch to allow for another four passenger seats, bringing its total capacity to 30.

Built to accommodate either a pair of Rybinsk Motors TVD1500 or General Electric CT-7 turboprops, the S-80 has suffered through a series of design changes and other program delays since its inception, surviving almost solely on KnAAPO’s persistence and $50 million in investment while Sukhoi’s OKB design arm demonstrated only lukewarm support. Today, as the S-80 finally enters its flight-test phase, the CIS market has virtually disappeared and fleet renewal forecasts compiled by Russian civil aviation authorities essentially ignore its existence.

Sukhoi-Ilyushin
RRJ–A day before the opening of the Moscow airshow in August, Sukhoi, Ilyushin and Boeing signed a series of agreements on a regional jet program proposed during a mid-April visit to Moscow by Boeing CEO Phil Condit. Dubbed the Russian Regional Jet (RRJ), the project calls for the development of a family of regional jets ranging in capacity from 55 to 95 seats, built specifically for Russian airlines. The first to express interest–Russian flag carrier Aeroflot–has signed a memorandum of understanding that calls for the purchase of 30 airplanes.

Under the development agreement signed by the three airframe builders, Sukhoi will assume the lead role, taking responsibility for aircraft design, business-plan development and series production, while Ilyushin manages certification and the design of some fuselage sections and components. Boeing’s role will center primarily on market research, possible U.S. certification and after-sales support.

To include 55-seat, 75-seat and 95-seat versions varying in range from 2,970 nm to 3,240 nm, the RRJ would most likely use an existing Western powerplant design, modified for Russian needs and licensed for production in Russia, according to director of the Russian state aviation and space agency Yuri Koptev. However, a Russian engine manufacturer–Perm Motors–has joined Pratt & Whitney, General Electric and Snecma as a lead candidate in the propulsion competition.

Aside from Aeroflot, two major Siberian carriers–Sibir and KrasAir–have expressed their interest in the program as well. KrasAir, for one, has long expressed a desire for a 70- to 90-seat regional jet with a range exceeding 1,900 nm to serve long, thin routes over the vast expanse of its Siberian route network. 

Tupolev
Tu-334-100–Rebutting press reports to the contrary, Nikolai Nikitin, general director of Tupolev Tu-334-100 contractor RSK MiG, insists that work on the production line at his company’s Voronin Production Center will accelerate, and the company will continue to buy manufacturing documentation from its Ukrainian project partner Aviant. Meanwhile, Kiev-based Aviant has nearly finished assembling its first two airframes, which now await installation of engines and avionics.

The promised boost to the program came as RSK MiG’s financial position strengthened with its sale of MiG-29 fighters to Burma. Nikitin held talks during June’s Paris Air Show with leaders of Tupolev and Aviant about cooperative activities and the results of flight tests on the only prototype, which by then had flown 63 times. At press time the airplane had flown another 40 sorties since tests resumed on July 4, after RSK MiG replaced some experimental parts with production components.

While Tupolev continues to assume a leadership role in the program’s design and development, assembly responsibility fell primarily to RSK MiG when it promised $35 million in funding last year. However, concerns over the company’s solvency led to speculation that it would withdraw from the program. Nevertheless, RSK insists its first Tu-334 will roll out of its Voronin plant by the end of next year as originally planned. The company has built fuselage and empennage sections and nacelles for the second development model at Voronin, where it plans to mate wings and other fuselage sections built by Aviant.

The Tu-334 flew for the first time in February 1999, but the flight-test program had languished for four years while Tupolev struggled to secure the necessary financing. Now with the help of MiG, the consortium that includes Tupolev, Aviant and Ulyanovsk-based Aviastar expects the program to regain momentum and culminate with Russian certification in 2003.

Meanwhile, a reported $2 billion agreement with Iran that calls for licensed production of 100 of the twinjets at the HESA factory in Isfahan has apparently stalled. At last report Tupolev had not yet transferred technical documentation to the Iranians, as Russia and the Islamic Republic negotiate a weapons sale that could include provisions for civil aircraft production.