On Cusp of Certification, Superjet Gains Big Order

 - January 30, 2011, 7:30 AM

Superjet International secured a key export order for the SSJ100 in January, while SSJ manufacturer Sukhoi Civil Aircraft (SCAC) acknowledged that certification of the 95-seat regional jet had stalled once again to late January–some four weeks later than the most recent slipped deadline of December 28.

At a January 17 press conference in Venice, Italy, Sukhoi Civil Aircraft general director Mikhail Pogosyan said that the company has finished all SSJ100 flight testing. First deliveries, he said, would follow more than a month after Russian certification, to domestic flag carrier Aeroflot and Armavia of Armenia in March.

Meanwhile, Mexican airline Interjet signed a $650 million contract covering firm orders for 15 SSJ100s and options for five more. Interjet currently operates 22 Airbus A320s and holds an order for a dozen more. According to Miguel Aleman Magnani, the operator’s executive president, Interjet chose the SSJ100 because it offers the performance to cope with high-altitude locations, such as Mexico City and Toluca.

“We will receive our aircraft in a low-density configuration, with 93 seats at 34-inch pitch, the same adopted on our A320s, to maintain our brand image as a comfortable low-cost airline,” Aleman Magnani told AIN. Interjet expects to receive its first SSJ100 in July next year, following cabin outfitting by Superjet International’s Venice, Italy factory in the spring.

Although the initial certificate issued by Russia’s AR MAK/IAC AR certification authority will allow only for Category 2 landing capability, the final version of the avionics software, expected from Thales by year-end, will allow for Category 3 landings.

In the meantime, “the factory and the production processes have already been certified by the EASA,” Carmelo Cosentino, recently appointed as Superjet International chairman, told AIN. Moreover, most of the Western-made equipment, including the Powerjet SaM146 engines, has already gained European approval, and the Superjet team expressed confidence that the airplane would gain EASA certification within six months of Russian approval. Notably, EASA pilot teams have flown the aircraft with their Russian counterparts regularly for more than a year-and-a-half.

“We have currently 10 aircraft [in] production and we plan to build a total of 14 SSJ100s this year,” Pogosyan said. By the end of the year SCAC expects to have delivered some six to eight aircraft to Russian and CIS operators. Thereafter, the company expects production to accelerate. “In two to three years we will reach a production rate of between 40 and 50 aircraft a year,” Pogosyan said, “while the full rate of 60 to 70 aircraft will be reached when other members of the Superjet family are added.”

Discussing future potential models, newly appointed Superjet Interational CEO Carlo Logli said that the market will drive the choice and that discussions are under way among shareholders to decide the next steps. “While in the initial stage we were forecasting a possible shortened version, around 75 seats, my current personal view is that the market might push us toward a stretched version, let’s say 120 passengers, rather than toward a smaller one, but no decision has yet been taken,” he said, adding that the partners might elaborate in June at the Paris Air Show. Moreover, three special versions–executive, corporate and government–remain in the preliminary engineering phase.

Currently, Superjet said it can count on firm orders for 170 airplanes, including the last one announced. Of those, SCAC has collected 99–30 from Aeroflot, 30 from Indonesia’s Kartika Airlines, 24 from Russia’s Avialeasing, 10 from Russia’s FLC (Financial Leasing Company), two from Armavia and three from a Laotian company. For its part, Superjet International has signed orders for 71 aircraft–30 from Bermuda-based Pearl Aircraft, six from Willis Lease Finance of the U.S., 20 from an undisclosed customer and, finally, the 15 from Interjet, with options for an additional 24.

Sitting in the SSJ100-95 mock-up at Superjet headquarters in Venice minutes after signing the $650 million contract, Miguel Aleman Magnani, executive president of the Mexican airline and son of Miguel Aleman Velasco, founder and chairman of the board, also in Venice, emphasized the importance of the Russian aircraft’s hot-and-high performance and comfort.

“We like to be considered a first-class low-cost airline, so we want our customers to be able to step out from an intercontinental flight and board our aircraft finding similar comfort and without having to drop their hand luggage,” said Aleman Magnani.

Performance from high-altitude airports will prove vital for operation from Interjet’s two hubs. Mexico City sits at 7,341 feet msl and, even more critical, Toluca–the airline’s main operating base–lies at 8,458 feet msl. “When the Superjet becomes operational, we will be able to use it on our regional routes, and this will allow us to increase our international activities using our A320s,” Aleman Magnani added. SSJ100s will operate on routes averaging 600 nm.

Although the Interjet contract marks the first firm deal with a Western airline, a customer that until now has preferred to remain undisclosed and might become known at the Paris Air Show has signed a further contract for 20 aircraft. In fact, until recently the Interjet contract has remained under wraps since the deal was signed last October 27. Perhaps not coincidentally, the announcement came a few days before the launch of an initial public stock offering for Interjet. Last year Interjet accounted for 25 percent of commercial aircraft movements in Mexico.

The company is active in environmental issues and has been investigating the use of biofuel. It hopes to participate in a first flight with zero CO2 residuals at the next Paris Air Show with Airbus, Safran and Honeywell.

Commenting on last December’s decision by Alitalia to choose a competitor’s aircraft, Giuseppe Giordo, CEO of Superjet International shareholder Alenia Aeronautica, said, “We [learned of] the decision through the press, and were not even allowed to submit our final offer; they decided to buy an aircraft that is more expensive [20 Embraer E170s and E190s] and have a lesser operational capacity, but it was their choice.”

As for a potential contract with Air Italy, discussions continue. “Although I am strongly grateful to the leasing companies that trusted and supported us until now, it was time to have on board an airline that will allow us to have direct input from operations,” said Logli, adding that the Interjet contract definitely “opens doors” in Central and Latin America. The next few months might bring in a first European contract, he said, followed by a North American airline customer. Some potential North American customers have already expressed interest, said Logli, and FAA certification should prove a smooth process once the aircraft earns EASA approval.

Although mostly a Russian aircraft, the SSJ100 nonetheless carries significant Italian content, and not only in shareholding and commercial aspects; Alenia Aermacchi produces engine nacelles, Avio makes components for the SaM146 engines, Magnaghi manufactures part of the landing gear and SMEs in the Naples area produce interiors. Moreover Superjet International in Venice is responsible for engineering all customer-specified modifications.