RAA Convention 2006: Eastern programs find their stride as Western firms ponder next move

 - September 19, 2006, 11:42 AM


An-148–With certification by Russian civil aviation authorities imminent, the first airplane type designed and built in the former Soviet Union without direct public funding stands nearly ready for first delivery to launch customer KrasAir of Siberia, which placed an order for 12. Fellow “launch” customer Pulkovo Aviation of St. Petersburg has claimed positions through 2010 on 18, all of which it plans to lease through Ilyushin Finance Leasing, while Voronezh, Russia-based Polyot Airlines prepares to consummate an announced deal with IFL to lease 15 passenger airplanes and another five cargo variants from next year through 2010.

Coincidence or not, it so happens that Polyot hails from the same city in which Voronezh Aircraft JSC (VASO) builds the An-148’s empennage, nose, rear fuselage and nacelles. VASO has also begun assembling its first An-148 under a license agreement it signed with Antonov in November. The program’s Ukrainian manufacturer, Kiev’s Aviant, has started assembly on three others, the first of which it expects to roll out this summer. Production schedules call for delivery of three An-148s this year, seven next year and 14 of the 70- to 80-seat regional jets in 2008.

Flown for the first time in December 2004, the first An-148 and its twin prototype flew more than 600 times over the course of a year before undergoing a month of cold-weather testing in the Siberian republic of Sakha this past winter.

Although by Eastern standards the An-148 has enjoyed fairly strong market interest within the former Soviet bloc, Western prospects appear far less immediate, and will hinge on Antonov’s ability to offer an alternative to the platform’s Progress D436-148 turbofans. The company has held talks with PowerJet about fitting the new SaM146 on the An-148 and GE about the CF34-10; however, any such undertaking will have to wait until Antonov secures more funding.


ARJ21–China’s AVIC I Commercial Aircraft (ACAC) continues its deliberate march toward a 2009 introduction of the 90-seat ARJ21-700, the first in a two-jet series to include the 105-seat ARJ21-900. Delayed by at least a year after ACAC decided to stretch the -700’s airframe by three feet to create more distance between the exit doors and engines and use more composite materials to reduce weight, assembly of the first airframe now appears likely to start next March.

Although work on major components such as the cockpit, fuselage and wings began early this year, test schedules show first flight won’t occur until March 2008. If all goes according to plan, launch customer Shandong Airlines will take the first production example in September 2009.

The ARJ21 program partners–a consortium led by government-controlled ACAC and in which 15 separate shareholders hold an interest–have now signed no fewer than 19 U.S. and European aerospace components suppliers to contribute to the effort. Seven separate ACAC-controlled factories participate in production, including program leader and final assembler Shanghai Aircraft, fuselage and wing supplier Xian Aircraft Industries, nose section builder Chengdu Aircraft and engine pylon/ vertical stabilizer contractor Shenyang Aircraft.

Still holding firm orders for 35 airplanes, ACAC hasn’t landed a new ARJ21 customer since September 2003, when it announced the launch orders for 10 from Shandong Airlines, five from Shanghai Airlines and 20 from Shenzhen Finance Leasing. Xiamen Airlines has since signed an MOU for six ARJ21-700s but hasn’t yet committed to placing an order. Using a pair of GE CF34-10A turbofans for the application, ACAC aims to certify the airplane to U.S. standards and hopes to gain FAA certification at the same time it wins Chinese approval. The FAA has already sent representatives to Beijing to help coordinate certification criteria.


C Series/900X/Q400X–Officially still alive as a program but downgraded in status from an imminent launch candidate to a loosely defined study, the Bombardier C Series now takes the proverbial back seat to research aimed squarely at the uppermost reaches of the regional airline market. Although Bombardier has retained a staff of 50 dedicated to the C Series, the company has begun shifting most of that project’s financial resources to studies on a new 90- to 100-seat regional jet, a possible stretch of the CRJ900 and a proposed 80- to 100-seat member of the Q Series line of turboprops.

Although the shift in priorities does not necessarily spell the end of the C Series, it does erase any ambiguity about Bombardier’s desire to mount a stronger challenge to Embraer in the 90- to 100-seat market. Still undecided about whether or not to pursue an entirely new jet platform, the company hadn’t yet unveiled any detailed proposals at press time. It has, however, spent a lot more time recently broadcasting the virtues of the 86-seat CRJ900, the largest airplane in its stable and the basis for what would become the CRJ900X.

According to Bombardier Aerospace vice president of marketing Trung Ngo, European scope-clause considerations will likely limit any stretch of the CRJ900 or Q400 to 100 seats. A three-row stretch of the 86-seat CRJ900 would result in a 98-seat airplane, as would a five-row stretch of the 78-seat Q400.


195–The largest member of Embraer’s “E-Jets” flew for the first time on Dec. 7, 2004, marking the start of a year-and-a-half-long testing campaign due to result in certification by EASA and Brazilian authorities in July.

Perhaps the least conspicuous of the series despite being the biggest of the lot, the 195 hadn’t attracted a firm order since its 1999 launch when, a week before last year’s Paris Air Show, the UK’s Flybe signed for 14 of the airplanes in a high-density, 118-seat cabin layout. More recently, Embraer landed a firm order for seven from Royal Jordanian Airlines in a dual-class, 100-seat configuration.

Nominally designed to hold 108 passengers, the design is essentially a straightforward stretch of the 100-seat Embraer 190, which, on the strength of a pair of blockbuster orders from JetBlue and Air Canada, has far outpaced the sales performance of the 195. Heavier, less short-field capable and not as long-legged as its smaller sibling, the GE CF34-10E-powered 195 has benefited greatly from structural reinforcements also introduced in the 190 last year, however, allowing it to fly as far as 2,100 nm with a full cabin.  

Unsuitable for most of the world’s regional airlines due to scope clauses, the 195 appears likely to find its niche in the lowest-capacity reaches of the major airline market. Although it doesn’t specify fleet size, the company estimates that a typical U.S. low-fare airline would need to generate only 58-percent load factors to break even flying 195s on 600-mile routes.


RRJ–The Russian Regional Jet project looks to have assumed some genuine clarity now that Sukhoi has set a program schedule that calls for final assembly of the first prototype in November, completion of the static test aircraft in December, first flight in September next year and Russian certification in October 2008. Of course, whether or not it meets those targets will depend on more than mere will and good intentions. But when Italy’s Alenia agreed to take a 25-percent stake in the program this year, the RRJ program assumed an air of credibility unimagined by skeptics at its outset.

Under the terms of the contract, Alenia will first help develop the airplane’s composites content, then contribute sales, marketing and aftermarket support. Although Boeing still acts as a consultant, perhaps the most influential Western participant remains France’s Snecma, which along with Russia’s NPO Saturn formed the joint venture known as PowerJet specifically to build the SaM146 turbofans destined to power both the 75-seat RRJ75 and 95-seat RRJ95. The partners, which ran the first test engine for the first time last month, expect the 14,000- to 17,500-pound-thrust design to gain certification in March 2008.

Second-tier Russian contractors include Beriev, which has agreed to build certain fuselage parts; Yakovlev, which won the contract for wing leading edges, various hatches and doors; and Ilyushin, which will help with onboard systems and Western certification.

Sukhoi counts firm orders for 30 RRJs from Aeroflot and another 10 from Russia’s Finance Leasing Co. One-time “launch customer” and member of the RRJ airline advisory council Siberian Airlines has allowed its letter of intent for 50 airplanes to expire.