Western 100-seaters meet their match

 - December 13, 2006, 7:01 AM

Airlines around the world in the market for equipment to serve the emerging 100-seat sector have no fewer than five choices to evaluate here at the Paris Air Show this week. Bombardier with its new C Series and Embraer with the 190/195 family enjoy a high profile, but alternative programs conceived farther east won’t easily let the Western airframers steal the show. The non-Western contenders are Antonov of Ukraine, with its An-148 twinjet, Aviation Industries of China with the ARJ-21 and the Sukhoi-led Russian Regional Jet.

Antonov and Sukhoi launched their programs in 2001 and, at face value, Antonov leads the race here at Paris ’05. While Sukhoi remains in the product definition phase, due for completion next month, Antonov is already flying two prototypes and ground testing another with a view to achieving Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) certification next March. However, Sukhoi claims it will achieve a more significant first by achieving joint CIS and European approval for the RRJ in 2008.

Antonov sees the CIS alone as sufficient market to justify An-148 development, which has so far cost about $250 million. It estimates the CIS regional jet market at 200 to 300 units, rising to 480 when considering traditional buyers of CIS aircraft such as Vietnam and Iran.

The An-148 family consists of the baseline 80-seat -100 model and a 100-seat -200 model. It offers each in A, B and C variants, which range in max takeoff weight between 81,570 to 99,200 pounds and in range between 1,190 and 2,757 nm. The 88,180-pound An-148-100B will become the first production model, carrying eight in business class and 60 in economy on sectors of up to 1,946 nm.

Some refer to theAn-148 as the “SlavicRegional Jet,” as it bringstogether Ukrainian companies Antonov, Ivchenko-Progress, Motor-Sich, Aviant and KSAMC with Russia’s Ilyushin-Finance, VASO and the Russian Instrument Makers Alliance. The team spent a short time on product definition and quickly moved on to manufacturing and certification trials, narrowly focusing on specific requirements of CIS carriers Aeroflot, KrasAir, Pulkovo and Aeroswit.

Sukhoi Looks West

Sukhoi went another way, selecting Western suppliers on major systems and risk-sharing work packages with French partners Safran (the new joint venture between engine maker Snecma and electronics group Sagem), Thales, Intertechnique and Liebherr. The RRJ’s airline advisory council also includes Air France and its partner KLM, as well as Northwest Airlines, Aeroflot and Sibir.

Early last year the airline council demanded a major design change, when the original concept built around the 75-seat RRJ-75B gave way to the larger RRJ-95LR. The current baseline design weighs 101,150 pounds and seats 95 to 105 passengers. Sukhoi reworked the airframe, avionics and cabin interiors, but the powerplant, consisting of two Snecma/Saturn SaM146 turbofans, remained intact with only minor thrust adjustments.

“Snecma is committed to the RRJ, as we believe this program can open up for us the new market segment, that of small commercial jets,” Snecma’s head of commercial aircraft engines Jean Pierre Cojan told Aviation International News. “The potential growth of the small commercial jets business is going to be spectacular, so we are positioning our engine for 75 and 100 seat airliners. We predict 2,700 to 2,800 sales in the next 20 years in the market segment covered by the SaM146.” That said, no other applications yet exist for the 14,000- to 18,500-pound-thrust engine.

Thales Aerospace senior vice president Francois Quentin has also shown a lot of enthusiasm for the project. “It comes at a time when regional aircraft are changing,” he said. “The RRJ is not the last in line of airplanes built in the past 20 years, but the first one of the new generation that is no longer a regional aircraft, but rather a low-capacity passenger airliner. The aircraft that dominate this market today are Embraer and Bombardier designs that grew from a 40- to 50-seater by means of fuselage plugs for 70- and then 90 seats. But the RRJ is a new generation of small commercial jet very consistent in terms of technology and product definition with Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 mainline airliners.” [In fact, Embraer’s 170/190 family is an all-new design, not derived or stretched from the smaller ERJ 135/145 family–Ed.]

The RRJ fuselage design centers around a five-seat-abreast cabin configuration, as opposed to the four-abreast layout in the Bombardier and Embraer jets. According to Sukhoi, it also features larger hand luggage and cargo volume, and a sophisticated cockpit built around Thales’s Top Deck avionics suite. “It is an air-transport-industry-grade system, not the equivalent of regional aircraft avionics suites existing in the marketplace today,” Quentin insisted. The RRJ packages includes elements of the avionics Thales has developed for both the Airbus A380 airliner and A400M military transport, but scaled down for the smaller aircraft.

RRJ TopDeck project manager Pierre Bonnet said designers have defined 90 percent of the avionics system and that about a third of it will consist of all-new hardware. The cockpit features six 6-inch by 8-inch LCDs, “touchball” cursor-moving devices and side flight control sticks. As part of the $70 million development contract signed on April 30, Thales will supply Sukhoi with an engineering test stand and make a second for its own use in Toulouse by the end of this year.

“Sukhoi is probably building something extremely successful in the future, addressing not only the Russian market, but the global one. Certain airlines in Europe and the U.S. are very interested in it,” Quentin said. Northwest Airlines of the U.S. and leasing group ILFC have surfaced as possible Western buyers. But Sukhoi has had to lower the RRJ-95 catalog price of $25 million to at least $20 million to win the contracts signed to date.

The An-148 lists for $18 million. On April 28, launch customer KrasAir placed a firm order for 10 and options for five more of the-100B model. It plans to take deliveries from 2006 to 2007. “At long last the airlines of Russia and Ukraine can buy a competitive product made jointly by our countries,” commented KrasAir general director Boris Abramovich. Patriotism was a factor in our choice, but the main one was that of the An-148’s competitiveness. If a Western aircraft had offered better economics, we would have considered it. The RRJ looks good on paper, but we prefer to have real aircraft sooner rather than later.”

Pulkovo To Sign for An-148 Here

Here at Le Bourget this week, another Russian airline, Pulkovo, plans to firm up a “soft order” it placed in January for 18 An-148-100Bs. The An-148’s relatively low flyaway price largely comes from its limited Western content, at 15 percent (mainly its Rockwell Collins avionics and a Swiss-designed interior), as opposed to the RRJ’s 50 to 60 percent.

Antonov expects to win more orders this year, targeting KrasAir partners Domodedovo Airlines, Samara, SibAviaTrans and OmskAvia. The airlines reportedly want to “optimize” their jointly managed AirBridge Alliance route network, which they say can sustain 30 to 35 An-148s as direct Tupolev Tu-134 replacements, plus up to 10 to 15 more aircraft if the routes grow.

Sukhoi has seen its sales success limited to Sibir’s July 2004 “delivery agreement” for 50 RRJ-95Bs with 10 more options. Negotiations with Aeroflot, UTair, Finance Leasing Company (FLK) remain in play.

Russian buyers see the RRJ and An-148 as direct competitors with similar flight performance and comfort levels. The Progress D-436-146 and SaM-146 turbofans offer similar specific fuel consumption, yet the Antonov design shows a slightly lower hourly fuel burn thanks to what it calls a more efficient, larger-span wing and narrower fuselage.

The RRJ and An-148 cockpits look similar, both featuring six 6- by 8-inch LCDs. Side-stick controls on the Sukhoi and “mini-yokes” on the Antonov account for the only visible difference. “Our [An-148] avionics are not in any way inferior,” said Russian Instrument Makers Alliance co-chairman Sergei Kryukov. “In some areas, such as automation of navigation tasks, we have embarked on quite an innovative approach, while meeting all ICAO requirements due for implementation up to 2015 and beyond.”

Sukhoi insists the RRJ will generate 800 sales–one third of them in the CIS and the rest in North America, Europe and Asia. Sukhoi Civil Aircraft Company has admitted that Russian airlines have warmed to the program more slowly than anticipated. “The airlines want to be sure of the program’s success,” a spokeperson said. “They have no doubts over the ability of our team to make the RRJ a perfect design in technical terms, but they want to make sure the RRJ project is managed so that its goals and targets are achieved in a timely manner. Most of the concerns are to do with the ability of Sukhoi military plants in Komsomolsk-upon-Amur (KnAAPO) and Novosibirsk (NAPO) to manage commercial airplane production in a timely and cost effective way.”

To allay fears, Sukhoi–much better known for its fighter aircraft–has accepted the responsibility for RRJ final assembly. It will act as an independent business unit, which means it will take RRJ parts and subassemblies from KnAAPO, NAPO and other suppliers on a contractual basis. To date, Sukhoi has spent $70 million of $700 million needed to complete RRJ development, production preparation and certification, including construction of the first six airframes.