Aeroflot Is Pressed to Buy Russian
By ANDREW E. KRAMER
Published: July 19, 2010
That it now flies a nearly all-Western fleet pleases passengers — but not, apparently, the Russian government.
This month in a public meeting, Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin sharply criticized Aeroflot’s chief executive for not buying more Russian-made jets.
“You want to dominate the domestic market, but you don’t want to buy Russian technology,” Mr. Putin told the executive, Vitaly Savelyev. “That won’t do.”
Mr. Savelyev replied that Aeroflot was buying 30 Russian-made jets, and would inherit a good many more when a planned merger with a half-dozen regional carriers was completed this year.
Mr. Putin spoke during an apparently stage-managed meeting, broadcast on state television. But there was nothing artificial about the message, delivered just two weeks before the jet industry’s largest international trade show opened Monday at Farnborough, near London: Russian airlines will be under pressure to buy Russian jets.
Aeroflot declined to comment for this article on its purchasing policies or on Mr. Putin’s discussion with Mr. Savelyev.
For a decade, Russian airlines have been steady customers of foreign aircraft makers. Aeroflot’s fleet consists mainly of Airbus A320s and A330s and Boeing 767s. And the airline has orders for an additional 44 Boeings and Airbuses, even as the Russian authorities are trying to salvage the country’s civilian jet makers — Tupolev, Ilyushin, Antonov and Yak.
Experts say that Russian airplanes are well constructed. Poor maintenance and repair records, however, earned them a bad reputation for safety after the Soviet Union collapsed. And, as any passenger can attest, they are more noisy and cramped than their Western rivals.
Last year, Aeroflot sold to smaller Russian airlines its Tupolev jets, the workhorse passenger aircraft of the former East Bloc. Now, only six of about 110 jets in its fleet are Russian made. Those planes, Ilyushin Il-96s, which carry about 260 passengers, fly within Russia and to a few select foreign destinations, including Havana and Hanoi.
Meanwhile, Aeroflot for the first time this year won recognition for the best business-class service on long-haul flights among the seven European airlines in the SkyTeam alliance, beating out the likes of Air France in pampering rich travelers, according to a SkyTeam customer survey.
The Russian government merged the aircraft manufacturing industry into a single company, United Aircraft Corporation, or U.A.C., in 2006, bringing back under one roof the design and manufacturing functions that had become separated during privatization. Yet the company has few offerings for large carriers like Aeroflot.
Russia has three passenger jet models flying commercially and still in production, with another expected to become available at the end of the year and a medium-haul plane on the drawing board.
The Tu-204, a 180-passenger upgrade in the Tupolev family of passenger planes, costs vastly more to maintain than, for example, similarly sized Boeing 767s operated by Aeroflot.
Russia is also manufacturing an aircraft, the An-148 regional jet, based on a Ukrainian design. The 75-seat aircraft, with its wing mounted above the fuselage, is a niche product — a passenger jet designed to fly from poorly surfaced airfields. It is certified to fly in Russia, but not in Europe or the United States.
Ilyushin is still technically producing long-haul, wide-body Il-96s, though none are on order by a civilian airline. Owning more Il-96 would poorly suit Aeroflot because the plane does not comply with European Union noise regulations.
The civilian aircraft arm of Sukhoi, the aerospace company best known for its fighter jets, is working with the Italian aerospace giant Finmeccanica on the first major new commercial aviation project since the end of the Soviet Union, the Sukhoi Superjet, a regional aircraft.
Aeroflot has ordered 30 of the jets, which seat about 100 passengers, for short-hop flights. Eighteen are in various stages of production, and four test planes are flying. Listed at $31.7 million, it is comparably priced to the Brazilian Embraer ERJ190 and more than $20 million cheaper than the Canadian Bombardier CRJ1000, both of which are about the same size as the Superjet.
Sukhoi says it has, in total, 101 firm orders and expects an additional 30 to be signed at the Farnborough International Airshow, where one of the prototype aircraft will fly, said Olga Kayukova, a spokeswoman. The first three production planes will be delivered this year.
The most recent Russian civilian aircraft project, a 150-seat airliner that would compete with the Airbus A320 family, is the first to reflect the Russian industry’s reorganization and is planned to enter serial production in 2015. It bears the working designation of MS-21, a Russian abbreviation for airliner for the 21st century, rather than the brand of any of the existing Russian aircraft companies.
Maxim Syssoev, a spokesman for United Aircraft Corporation, said the company was showing a mockup of several rows of seats from the MS-21 cabin at Farnborough but was counting on Russian airlines as its “base market.”
Even robust sales in Russia, however, would hardly justify the tremendous cost of designing and developing a new aircraft. At its peak, the Soviet industry produced 250 passenger jetliners a year; now it produces a few dozen at best. For production to be ramped up, Mr. Syssoev said, the airplanes would at least have to attract customers like Aeroflot to have a hope of finding success elsewhere.
“U.A.C. should make a product the airlines will choose, on a competitive basis,” Mr. Syssoev said. “Nobody is going to force airlines to buy airplanes.”