Paris Air Show

Superjet 100 soars onto international stage

 - June 14, 2009, 9:00 AM

Sukhoi’s new Superjet 100 airliner is making a triumphant international debut here at the Paris Air Show. For the program’s Russian and Italian partners, the Le Bourget stage is an ideal setting to signal to the market that the twinjet has got back on track after some technical delays, with first deliveries now set to happen before year-end.

The next variation of the Sukhoi Superjet 100 will almost certainly involve a stretch of the existing 95-seat baseline platform, leaving the once highly anticipated 75-seat version in a state of virtual limbo. In fact, according to Superjet International CEO Alessandro Franzoni, plans for a smaller version of the airplane have virtually stalled, while designers concentrate their efforts on determining the optimum configuration for a larger Superjet variant that could hold as many as 120 passengers.

“We expect to announce what we expect our final production strategy will be very soon,” said Franzoni. “Mostly it will depend on what our customers want us to do, and while we haven’t totally abandoned plans for the 75, we don’t have a customer yet for [that model] and our focus right now is more on a stretched version.

“We are assuming maximum commonality possible with the basic 95 version,” he continued. “So this is, of course, what is potentially limiting us, but as long as this allows us to have at least 20 percent more seats than the 95, I think this could be a valid proposition for our customer base.”

Specifically, studies now center on a version that would use the same Powerjet SaM146 turbofans, but with a thrust increase of less than 10 percent, according to company senior vice president Paulo Revelli-Beaumont. However, the central questions lie with the amount of range penalty airlines will accept and at what capacity the airplane can remain profitable with a third flight attendant.   

“In terms of a tradeoff, particularly what we are speaking of is essentially range,” said Revelli-Beaumont. “I think if we have a stretch with the same engine with some thrust improvement–not a huge one–we are speaking certainly under a 10-percent thrust improvement, that could equate to a range of around 1,500 to 1,600 nautical miles, which would still be a good aircraft for our customers.”

For the time being, however, getting the first pair of Superjet 100s ready for delivery to launch operator Armavia by the end of this year and establishing a global support network have kept both Superjet International and Sukhoi Civil Aircraft sufficiently occupied.

By mid-May SCAC had flown the two prototypes on 160 test flights for a total of 500 flight hours. Engineers had completed flutter testing in just 15 flights instead of an originally planned 25, while icing trials required five flights rather than 18, said Revelli-Beaumont. The prototypes have reached an altitude of 40,000 feet and a maximum speed of Mach 0.88. Published specs show a maximum cruise speed of Mach 0.81. Schedules called for a third aircraft to join the flight test program this month and a fourth this fall.

Also by just about the time of the show opening SCAC expected to have finished calculating specific fuel consumption, which, according to Revelli-Beaumont, should show a 10- to 12-percent improvement over existing competitors. “What we are looking for is the famous double-digit improvement on the existing aircraft,” he said.

Scheduled for first deliveries to Armenia’s Armavia by year-end, the Superjet not only will reach the market three years earlier than either the Mitsubishi MRJ or Bombardier C Series, but its backers also claim its conventional, yet efficient Powerjet engines will appeal far more to risk-averse regional operators.  

“With the new Pratt & Whitney engine, we all know there will be technological risks,” said Revelli-Beaumont, referring to the PW1000G geared turbofan. “This will in any case come three or four years later, so we do think we have a window of opportunity that we are determined to use.”

After Armavia takes the first two airplanes late this year or early next, the program’s commercial lynchpin–namely, Russia’s Aeroflot–expects delivery of the following seven examples. As of last month, 13 production airplanes stood in various stages of completion at the final assembly line in Komsomolsk on Amur, in Russia’s Far East.

Plans call for the eventual production of 70 airplanes per year. “This is the current plan for tooling and facilities, both in Russia and in Italy,” said Franzoni. “We are prepared to support delivery of three aircraft per month from Venice, which is roughly half the total production.”

Still expecting to deliver the first aircraft from Venice to a Western customer in the second half of 2010, Superjet International will accept airplanes in “green” condition from Komsomolsk, then complete the interior and paint for airlines such as Itali and Switzerland’s AMA Group, which last July placed an order for five VIP versions of the airplane.

Logistics support and spares provisioning will come from Lufthansa Technik out of Frankfurt, under the terms of a contract Superjet International signed with the Germany company in March. Superjet International itself recently received EASA and Italian Part 145 certification, which allows it to carry out maintenance, completion and customization activities. The approval also allows the company to perform line maintenance on Airbus A320s at Venice Airport while it waits for the first Superjet to arrive in Italy next year.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., former ATR executive John Buckley mans a newly opened North American headquarters within the Finmeccanica building. Buckley expressed confidence that the program would attract a U.S. customer once it proves its mettle with the likes of Aeroflot, holder of an order for 30 airplanes and a likely candidate for a follow-up order for another 15.

“We should be in operation exactly when this financial crisis is, I won’t say over, but almost over, introducing in operation the only new aircraft in the 100-seater scenario and the only aircraft that will provide significant cost advantages for the operators, with state of the art technology–all proven technology–no technological dreams, no risk for the user,” said Franzoni.