The latest contender for the sector of the market dominated by Embraer’s E-Jet line and Bombardier’s CRJs suffered perhaps the worst kind of public-relations damage one could imagine this month, when a Sukhoi Superjet 100-95 crashed into a sheer mountain face in Indonesia, killing all 45 people on board. Making its second demonstration flight of the day, MSN 95004 had flown just 20 minutes when the flight crew requested a descent to 6,000 feet from 10,000 feet before losing radio contact with ATC. Photographs taken by the Indonesian authorities showed it crashed into the top of a 5,200-foot peak near Mount Salak, some 60 miles south of Jakarta.
An attempt to assess the damage of a deadly accident beyond the human toll might seem premature, or even vulgar, but in this case the promise of thousands of manufacturing jobs—and, indeed, the prestige of a country’s civil aircraft industry—might well hinge on whether or not investigators find that a technical fault led to the disaster.
The Superjet program, hailed as a groundbreaking partnership between Russian and Western industry, has made little headway into markets outside the CIS and developing nations, largely due to the negative perceptions earned by designs conceived before the fall of the Soviet Union.
Although SuperJet International—the program’s Venice, Italy-based Western support and sales arm—did manage to draw an order from Mexico’s Interjet for 15 long-range variants early last year, most sales prospects hail from developing nations such as Indonesia. Still, optimism seemed warranted when just this past February the Superjet became the first Russian airliner ever to gain EASA certification. (The Tupolev 204-120CE freighter gained EASA approval in 2008 and the Beriev 200ES-E amphibian won a restricted European ticket in 2010.)
Now, even potential customers from countries with substandard safety records such as Indonesia must consider the possibility of damage to their reputations if, by chance, the crash investigation uncovers some mechanical flaw with the airplane.
For the families and friends of the 45 people who died, it matters little. Even for the individuals at Sukhoi and SuperJet International, a positive outcome—that is, a finding of pilot error—might come as little consolation. But for Russia’s civil aviation industry, the findings could mean the difference between a sad footnote in history and a giant step backward toward irrelevance.