Next Superjet likely a stretch

 - June 30, 2009, 10:58 AM

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, Superjet International CEO Alessandro Franzoni said that 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 will announce soon what we expect our final production strategy will be,” 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 than on a smaller version.

“Certainly we have learned a lot during the last years,” he continued, “Superjet International in particular over the last couple of years, but what we have learned has induced us to consider a different strategy… We are assuming maximum commonality possible with the basic 95 version, 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 in the extent to which airlines will accept a range penalty and at what capacity the airplane can remain profitable with a third flight attendant.

“In terms of a tradeoff, what we are speaking of is range,” said Revelli-Beaumont, who earlier quoted a typical range of 2,200 nm for the SSJ100-95. “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 nm, 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 first operator Armavia by the end of this year and establishing a global support network have kept both Superjet International and Sukhoi Civil Aircraft (SCAC) sufficiently occupied.

SCAC has now flown the two prototypes on more than 160 test flights for more than 500 flight hours. Schedules called for a third aircraft to join the flight-test program right around the time of last month’s Paris Air Show, and a fourth some time 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, its backers 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. “We are prepared to support delivery of three aircraft per month from Venice, which is roughly half the total production,” said Franzoni.

Still expecting to deliver the first aircraft to a Western customer in the second half of next year from Venice, 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 German company in March.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., former ATR executive John Buckley mans a newly opened North American headquarters within the Finmeccanica building, two blocks from the White House, in Washington, D.C.

Although few believe Buckley doesn’t face a formidable challenge selling the aircraft in North America–a market not only saturated with Bombardier and Embraer jets, but one that has experienced some of the world’s deepest capacity cuts–Franzoni thinks the timing of the airplane’s introduction will play in its favor.

“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 100-seat aircraft and the only aircraft that will provide significant cost advantages for operators, with state-of-the-art technology–all proven technology–no technological dreams, no risk for the user,” insisted the Italian CEO.