The Russians are coming!

A friend once recounted his story of a jump-seat ride aboard an Aeroflot airlines Tu-154 during the 1980s. After the Russian trijet had reached cruise altitude, the flight crew broke out a bottle of sherry and began celebrating, because they had managed to survive another takeoff in an airplane not known for its reliability. In fact, the NATO code name for the Tu-154 was "Careless." Since 1968, more than three dozen of them have had fatal crashes, and it was a Tu-154 crash that killed the president of Poland and most of his cabinet in April of 2010.

Aeroflot removed the last of these aircraft from its service in 2009, ostensibly because their engines were too noisy, and now flies mostly Western-built aircraft. However, that could soon change as Russia begins to field a new generation of indigenously built commercial aircraft, this time designed with Western assistance and major components (including avionics, engines and control systems) that promise greater reliability and easier product support. Some of these aircraft could be converted to executive and VIP use and give the current entrants in the uber-barge market–Airbus, Boeing and Embraer–stiff competition later in the decade.

The Sukoi 100 (SSJ100) is at the head of the class. This is not Boris' Tu-154. The large 75-95 seat (coach) regional jet is undergoing certification approval by European authorities and is being built by United Aircraft, a partnership of Italy's Alenia and Russia's Sukhoi Design Bureau–with a large helping of technical and marketing support from Boeing. During a visit to Seattle earlier this year, I spoke with a Russian who worked on the project for Boeing. "It is the first [commercial] Russian airplane designed on the computer, rather than paper!" he exclaimed.

More than 200 of the $32 million Superjets are on order, primarily from airlines in Russia and Asia, and for years United Aircraft has made no secret of its interest in offering an executive version of the model to fill a niche it sees between large-cabin bizjets such as Gulfstreams and Bombardier Globals and the even bigger, single-aisle twinjets such as the Airbus Corporate Jet and Boeing Business Jet (BBJ).

At this year's Paris Air Show, plans for the $50 million Sukhoi Business Jet (SBJ) were formally announced. Carlo Logli, CEO of Superjet International, the SSJ100's marketing arm, estimates that between 80 and 100 executive Superjets could be delivered over the next 20 years, with sales centered primarily in North America, the Middle East and Russia.

Fitted with auxiliary fuel tanks, Superjets could have a range of 4,300 nautical miles, which would put them head-to-head with Embraer's Lineage 1000. Logli said the first SBJ could be certified by 2014.

The Russians aren't the only ones who could be jumping into the airliner business jet market. Bombardier, Japan's Mitsubishi and China's Comac all have regional jets in the works that at some point could do executive duty.

BBJ president Steve Taylor doesn't see this happening for a while, given the complexities of converting an airliner into a truly useful executive aircraft. "I believe it's many years in the future," he told me. "It's such a big challenge. With the BBJ, we had to increase the operational weight by 20,000 pounds to be able to carry enough fuel to get the range we needed. To do so, we used the wing from the 737-800 mated to the fuselage of the 737-700. But without having a whole product line to draw from, you can't make that happen. It is a really unusual airplane that you can move from one category [airliner] to another [business jet]."

Show comments (1)

Regarding “The Russians Are Coming!” [August/September 2011], I share your lack of appreciation of the Tu154, which was inferior to comparable American and European single-aisle aircraft of its era. The demise of this aircraft, coinciding with the demise of the Soviet Union, was mostly due to the excessive fuel consumption of its low-bypass engines and incompatibility with noise regulations. I urge you to read a little about the 2010 Polish Air Force Tu-154 crash. You will surely find that the causes of this accident had nothing to do with the reliability of the aircraft but rather with its use in demanding conditions. I find your mention of the SSJ100 interesting, and wish to remind you that Sukhoi is not the first Russian manufacturer taking this path. They were preceded by the ill-fated “export” versions of Ilyushin Il-96 and Tupolev Tu-204. The menace to Boeing-Airbus sovereignty is more likely looming from China.

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