Russian planemakers eye global markets

By Konstantin Rozhnov
Business reporter, BBC News

Image caption,
The Superjet 100 was created by an international joint venture

Desperate to shed its Soviet Union image as a manufacturer of clunky airliners, Russia is eager to become a significant player in the global civil aviation market.

So is this lofty goal achievable?

The mighty nation is pinning its hopes on two new aircraft projects and its reputation as a trusted arms exporter.

But first, it will need to win over sceptics in the home market.

Not a single new Russian civil aircraft engineering project has been successfully turned into a mass-produced plane during the past two decades since the USSR ceased to exist.

And domestic-made planes that used to offer the only means of air transport have suffered a heavy defeat in a battle with foreign flying machines. According to some estimates, foreign-built aircraft now carry out about 75% of all flights by Russian airlines.

'Likely delays'

The collapse of the entire aircraft building infrastructure that was built up during the Soviet era was accelerated by a desperate lack of funds during the 1990s.

So the newcomers have arguably started from scratch, gradually, painstakingly building the foundations for what they hope will be a solid aerospace industry.

Image caption,
The Russian aviation industry is controlled by a state-owned corporation

And at last they have something to show for their efforts.

At last week's Farnborough air show, Sukhoi's regional Superjet 100 was shown and flown, while another flagship project, the MS-21, was displayed in form of a cabin mock-up.

Several contracts and memorandums of understanding worth billions of dollars to deliver both planes in future were signed.

But critics point out that intention to deliver does not equate ability, predicting painful delays before the first planes are actually delivered to carriers.

Besides, mutter the sceptics, the Russian planes face fierce competition, not only from the world's leading aircraft makers Boeing and Airbus, but also from smaller players such as Japan's Mitsubishi, Brazil's Embraer and Canada's Bombardier, as well as from rival newcomer Comac, the Chinese player.

Private partners

Sukhoi is well known as a producer of fighter jets, but the Superjet 100 project is its first in commercial aviation.

The plane has been created by a joint venture, majority owned by Sukhoi. Italy's Finmeccanica and a number of other foreign and Russian firms are also involved.

Image caption,
Russia is an established exporter of military aircraft

"Superjet will be built in more than just tiny numbers, which is a triumph, considering the fate of all other post-USSR civil aerospace programs," says Richard Aboulafia, vice president at Teal Group, an aerospace industry consultant.

The project seems to have succeeded, he says "where the Westernised TU-204 and IL-96 and others have failed".

Mr Aboulafia believes that the success is the result of private sector companies' involvement.

"Government-owned industries do an extremely poor job at meeting commercial market needs," he says.

A hundred planes

But Roman Gussarov, editor of industry website, says that there are still a lot of problems with the Superjet 100.

"So far, Superjet's parameters are not the ones promised by Sukhoi at the beginning," he explains.

"Sukhoi thought that they would be able to achieve necessary results without composite materials," he says, highlighting the planemaker's inexperience in creating commercial aircraft.

Deliveries to launch customer Aeroflot, Russia's flagship carrier, have been delayed, mainly because of engine certification problems.

But Russian officials hope that the plane will be delivered later this year.

Sukhoi has managed to secure orders for or intentions to buy more than 100 Superjet planes at $31.7m (£20.3m) per plane according to official prices - enough to break even according to company officials.

Hardy plane

Building planes suitable for Russia's climate and terrain is challenging.

Soviet planes, though infamously poor in many regards, were hardy beasts designed to cope in tough conditions.

For example, many of Russia's rough airfields cannot accommodate aircraft with low-slung engines.

That is why, says Mr Gussarov, Russia's regional aviation really needs the MS-21, another potential brand new aircraft that has been designed in and is set to be built in Russia.

The plane, scheduled to start flying in 2016, has been developed by a number of Russian companies that are part of a consortium led by Irkut.

Old ways die hard

But the MS-21's eventual success or failure may not be determined by its engineering qualities alone.

Both Irkut and Sukhoi, as well as other Russian design engineering bureaus and aviation firms, are part of the state-owned United Aircraft Corporation (UAC) formed in 2006.

"Russia's aerospace industry has been forced back into the world of state ownership and five year plans," says Mr Aboulafia.

He believes that this approach works for addressing military markets, "but it is disastrous in commercial markets."

"Unless UAC is put back in private ownership, or unless it is rescued by Western companies that know how to meet market needs, the MS-21 will go nowhere," says Mr Aboulafia.

Mr Gussarov thinks that "it might be good that design engineering bureaus compete in the global market, rather than with each other".

On the other hand, he says, in the USSR many "amazing products" were created as a result of the competition between the bureaus.

Military contacts

In terms of gaining a share of the global market, Russian commercial planes could get help from their military counterparts' reputation abroad.

Image caption,
The MS-21 is scheduled to start flying in 2016

Indeed, Indonesian company Kartika Airlines is among those who plan to buy the Superjet 100 planes, while Malaysia's Crecom signed a contract for the supply of the MS-21 planes.

Both Indonesia and Malaysia have been traditional markets for Russian military aircrafts, and Malaysian Defence Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi was present at the contract signing ceremony in Farnborough.

Iran is another perspective market, as the country cannot rely on buying Western planes, because it is concerned that sanctions might make it difficult to acquire components.

Meanwhile, all eyes are now on Aeroflot, which has ordered 30 Superjet 100 planes, as it is the only big airline to sign a contract.

"So far, the only orders they have received outside of Russia and other post-USSR states have been from highly speculative customers," says Mr Aboulafia.

Even the motivation behind Aeroflot's order has been questioned.

Aeroflot recently said it was going to buy several dozens of aircrafts from Airbus and Boeing, only to be told off by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin for not buying "Russian technology".

"That will not do," said Mr Putin.

When the Superjet 100 is finally introduced on Russian regional routes, global aviation players will be watching.

Aeroflot's experience in dealing with the plane could prove defining for the future of both the Superjet and other potential Russian projects.