Boeing ponders its role in Russian Regional Jet

 - October 9, 2007, 5:18 AM

The Sukhoi-led Russian Regional Jet (RRJ) program awaits approval to take off in July this year, but much depends on Boeing, as the U.S. aerospace giant contemplates its role in the project, so far restricted to sharing expertise in marketing and aircraft design with its Russian partners. Boeing plans to make a decision this summer.

Sukhoi began studies on a regional jet in 2000, and attempted a union with U.S. startup Alliance Aircraft, but soon realized it needs a “heavier weight” foreign partner to make the project a success both domestically and internationally. Boeing chairman and CEO Phil Condit first mentioned the joint effort during a visit to Russia in April last year. At last year’s Paris Air Show Boeing signed a letter of intent with Sukhoi and Ilyushin, and Sukhoi assumed the lead role in the project in

August. Boeing agreed to share its expertise in aircraft development, maintenance and U.S. certification, and pro-mised help in international marketing and after-sales support. In December the parties completed a joint market study and a business plan that called for launch in the middle of this year.

In early April a joint working group session took place in Seattle involving more than 50 specialists from Sukhoi, Ilyushin, Boeing and Russian investment firm Troika-Dialog. At that time, the first session of the RRJ technical council was held. “We detailed technical specifications, and corrected market prognosis in light of recent data from Boeing sales centers and the response of Russian airlines to our proposal,” Andrei Ilyin, general director of Sukhoi’s civil aircraft division, told AIN. During this meeting Sukhoi presented the newly appointed chief designer for the project.

Yuri Ivashechkin, who previously headed the Sukhoi Su-25 attack aircraft and Mikoyan MiG-110 twin turboprop programs, said the meeting in Seattle allowed the parties to share their views on the RRJ’s shape. It was there they agreed to pursue a family concept, with the 75-seat RRJ-75 coming first, followed by the shortened RRJ-55 and then the extended RRJ-95, all sharing the same wing, avionics, systems and powerplants.

The parties will attend another working group session this month in Moscow to review the project and select engine and avionics suppliers. The RRJ business plan and technical specification should be finalized next month, when the partners plan to decide whether to launch full-scale development of the airplane. Speaking to AIN during the last days of April, Ilyin said that between five and six years would be needed for development, certification and building a production line. “We will not establish a production line unless sufficient orders are secured in the next two years,” he said. Three years of full-scale production would allow the project to break even, he estimated.

Ilyin estimates research and development (R&D) on the airframe at $600 million. The powerplant would take an extra $600- to $700 million, to be covered by the engine supplier on risk-sharing terms. Suppliers of avionics and major on-board systems will also be selected from the applicants willing to develop their products with their own money.

So far the RRJ partners have funded development work from their own budgets. In part, the required funding may come from the Russian state budget, provided Sukhoi and Ilyushin win respective governmental tenders. The federal program “Development of Civil Aviation in 2002-2010 and up to 2015” validated by the Russian government last October 15, allocated 1.2 billion rubles ($40 million) for the 50-seat Tu-324 and 1.62 billion rubles ($54 million) for the 102-seat Tupolev Tu-334, but nothing for the RRJ. Yet state funding of 1.46 billion rubles ($48.6 million) is preserved in the 2006 to 2015 timeframe for “a new regional airplane” powered by a “four- to five-ton engine” funded separately by another 2 billion rubles ($66.6 million). The state also funds development of the Unified Integrated Avionics IKBO-2003, set for certification next year for use on the Tu-324, Tu-204 and Beriev Be-200, and a next-generation IKBO-2005. The RRJ can benefit from those allocations.

Finding funds remains a key question, Ilyin agreed, and that is being done “in the Western way,” by getting early commitments from airlines and leasing companies, attracting investors and using the capital of the manufacturers. For added appeal to outside investors, a head company managing the project is to be established, in the form of a U.S.-Russian joint venture.

Any connection with Sukhoi’s military programs is to be avoided, Ilyin said, noting the creation of Sukhoi Civil Aircraft more than a year ago. At this stage neither of Russia’s production factories manufacturing Sukhoi’s highly successful combat jets–KnAAPO and IAPO– has helped with the project.

It appears unlikely they will become involved in the RRJ, except as investors. “Both are well supported by military orders and civil programs already under way,” explained a Sukhoi spokesman. “And besides, we do not want any military connection.”

A deliberate avoidance of KnAAPO and IAPO–with their capital and CAD/CAM capability– could prove problematic. None of Russia’s “civil only” factories is financially healthy, and all need considerable investment to establish production of an all-new regional jet. “It is a challenge, but there is no other way,” Ilyin said.
Plans call for selecting a suitable factory this year. An RRJ manufacturing site is to be a new facility, equipped with modern programmable machine tools, and set up either within the territory of the selected plant or in the vicinity.

The partners plan to design the entire RRJ using Dassault/IBM Catia software, having chosen the system over the Russian standard, Unigraphics. The bulk of manufacturing work on the airframe will be done by Sukhoi Civil Aircraft engineers. Ilyin said that Sukhoi can also do some design work if necessary. Sukhoi designers have experience with computer-aided design technologies from military programs. It remains unclear whether Ilyushin engineers working in Boeing’s Moscow Design Center or Boeing’s own specialists will lead the CAD effort.

The RRJ team chose design parameters to meet Russian and CIS airline requirements. Potential customers have asked for 70 to 80 seats with extended range, so that the RRJ can replace the Boeing 737 and Tu-154 on mainline routes in the low season, and reach the middle of Siberia from Moscow.

Sukhoi formed an advisory committee of 13 Russian and three CIS airlines, among them Aeroflot, which signed a letter of intent for 30 aircraft. Fleet forecasts estimate a need for 150 units within the Russian market. The first RRJ, set for delivery in late 2006 or the “first quarter of 2007 at the very latest,” would go to a Russian operator.

Maintenance departments would use technologies and procedures similar to those used on the Boeing 737. The Russian privately owned East Line group is investing $40- to $45 million in a Boeing maintenance center at Domodedovo Airport, on the base of the existing ATB Domodedovo maintenance station. The RRJ would undergo maintenance there.

The RRJ is to be competitive with the Embraer 170 and Fairchild Dornier 728 families on the international market. “Our advantage will be an integral one; we are planning to offer customers the same or better performance in every field, including after-sales support and maintenance, and all at a lower sticker price,” Ilyin said. Boeing “is talking to its major customers in the U.S.,” he added. Forecasts predict a total market for RRJ-like aircraft of 5,000 by 2020. Ilyin said that his plan is to capture at least 10 percent of the market.

The basic RRJ-75, with a mtow of 79,432 lb, will transport 75 economy-class passengers 1,450 nm; alternatively, eight business-class and 60 economy-class seats will be installed. The fuselage cross-section is a single-aisle 2+3-seat (five abreast) layout. In the shortened form–two cuts, each 5.3 ft ahead of and aft of the wing-fuselage connection–it becomes the 72,245-lb RRJ-55, seating 55 passengers. Under consideration is a 95-seat RRJ-95, with two plugs each measuring 5.3 ft, to carry 95 people in a high-density layout or eight business-class and 80 economy-class passengers.

All family members will use common landing gear and wings with area of 753 sq ft and span of 86 ft. Special long-range versions–the RRJ-55LR, 75LR and 95LR, respectively–would carry a mtow of 79,322, 88,052 and 95,901 lb. The RRJ-55LR with a full passenger load would have a range of 2,700 nm.

The RRJ would appear on the market well after competing designs from Bombardier, Embraer, Fairchild Dornier and Tupolev, and thus can be a contender only if it offers notably better performance and cost-effectiveness particularly from the powerplant.
A tender is already in place, with the Pratt & Whitney Canada PW800, Snecma/NPO Saturn SM146, GE CF34-8E and Rolls-Royce BR710 in the bidding. The Ukraine’s ZMKB Progress AI22, due for certification next year, may also enter the competition. Engine and airframe production in Russia stands as a requirement to escape from heavy import taxes, and to achieve competitive prices on Russian and international markets.

Snecma has teamed with Russia’s largest engine specialist, NPO Saturn, on the SM146, while Pratt & Whitney Canada, with the PW800, has joined with Aviadvigatel, after the latter gave up the early idea to bid with its own PS9. GE’s offer of the CF34 and a Rolls-Royce proposition stand behind the leaders “politically,” as they have not collaborated with Russian manufacturers. There is no firm requirement that the RRJ engine be produced in Russia, but such an option will be favored.

Snecma began development of the DM21 gas-generator demonstrator in 1999, and it was due to begin tests by the end of last month. It would provide a base for the SM146’s hot section, while NPO Saturn develops the rest of the engine.
If selected, the SM146 will enter full-scale development by year-end and vie for certification in December 2005, enabling first RRJ delivery in 2007, said NPO Saturn general director Yuri Lastochkin.