CityJet, Russians Differ on Reasons for Superjet Shuffle

 - February 19, 2019, 11:30 AM
CityJet's Sukhoi Superjets appear headed to Slovenia's Adria Airways. (Photo: Superjet International)

The Russian government, Sukhoi Civil Aircraft (SCAC), and officials from Irish regional airline CityJet have addressed the future of the SSJ100 fleet in Western Europe following reports on Monday about the Dublin-based ACMI specialist removing the type from active service. The accounts given by SCAC and CityJet for the circumstances behind the airline’s decision to shed the fleet and any future talks with the manufacturer differ, however, obscuring the reasons behind the airplanes’ apparent move to a new operator.

Russian minister for industry and trade Denis Manturov told reporters that the SSJ100s CityJet has decided to jettison will nonetheless remain in Europe and likely go to Slovenia’s Adria Airways, which signed for 15 late last year. “We have already reached an agreement with the airline from Slovenia that would operate these aircraft,” said Manturov.

Manturov spoke in the wake of a report by Moscow-based newspaper Vedomosti about CityJet ending its use of Russian-made equipment, noting that the airline’s corporate website no longer lists the Superjet among aircraft types in its active fleet. CityJet’s fleet now consists of 25 Bombardier CRJ900s and 13 Avro RJ85s “operating from bases in Amsterdam, Brussels, Copenhagen, Dublin, Helsinki, London, Paris, Stockholm, Tallinn, and Vilnius.” Following the last commercial flight on which CityJet operated the airplanes on wet lease in Brussels Airlines’ route network, CityJet’s entire remaining fleet of five SSJ100s has sat idle at Dublin and Shannon Airports.

On Monday the manufacturer characterized reports about CityJet returning the airplanes to their owner as “not correct.” It further insisted that the Irish carrier “is revising its business model” and that the manufacturer and CityJet “are actively cooperating” to determine the future of the SSJ100s. The comments sparked a reaction from CityJet, a spokesman for which denied any plans for changes to the business model. He also denied the existence of any “active cooperation” with SCAC after SSJ100 commercial operations ended last month.

Notwithstanding the contradictions, since 2017 the carrier had moved away from scheduled flights in favor of charters operated on wet lease terms for other airlines. CityJet completely ceased flying under its own name in October 2018.

CityJet canceled most of its remaining routes from London City Airport (LCY) in October 2017, thus frustrating SCAC’s hopes of convincing the airline to acquire the most recent SSJ100 version featuring “Saberlets”—radically curved wingtips designed to improve runway performance and reduce fuel burn by 4 percent to give the type 270 to 380 nautical miles of extra range when operating from short runways or high-elevation airports.

The next blow to the Superjet’s future in Western Europe came a year ago, when Christina Foerster replaced Bernard Gustin as CEO at Brussels Airlines. Shortly thereafter, the Belgian carrier decided to terminate the SSJ100 ACMI contract under which CityJet provided seven such aircraft—including four in the customer’s livery—starting in March 2017. Brussels Airlines cited long downtimes and aircraft complexity as the primary cause.

Some two years earlier, CityJet executive chairman Pat Byrne decided to replace his aging Avro RJ85s with Superjets on short routes in northern and central Europe. Although the contract called for 16 SSJ100s with an option for 15 more, the carrier took only seven aircraft on operating lease terms in 2016 and 2017. Last autumn, it ferried two to Venice for maintenance with no plans for their return.

Last December SCAC CEO Alexander Roubtsov acknowledged that the carrier might well decide to shed the remaining five aircraft early in 2019. “The customer changed its business model and dropped London City flights,” he said. “With that, the initial contract has become outdated. We may well terminate our relationship.” He called CityJet’s experience with the type “a good story,” which, however, “may come to an end…in case we do not modify the contract so that it becomes more workable in the new reality.

“That said, I am not excluding a sharp turn in the destiny of our cooperation with CityJet,” he concluded.