A larger and improved Superjet is coming after 2020, but the new head of civil aircraft at United Aircraft Corporation is not waiting to restock the programme’s order backlog.
After averaging about 20 deliveries from 2014-2016, Sukhoi Civil Aircraft Company (SCAC) has delivered 11 Superjets already this year and is on track to hand over a total of 33 aircraft to customers, according to Flight Fleets Analyzer. Only 30 orders remain in the backlog with deliveries dated beyond 2017, but SCAC is preparing to sustain aircraft shipments at an annual rate of about 35-36 through 2019, says chief executive Vladislav Masalov.
To keep the production rate stable, Superjet needs to collect orders for around 40 new aircraft within about a year. For a regional jet programme with roughly 90 aircraft six years after entering service, that is an ambitious target to hit, but Masalov is feeling good about his chances.
The export market is suddenly heating up. Iranian carriers are reportedly interested in placing an order for dozens of new Superjets. In Europe, Brussels Airlines has started operating three Superjets leased from Ireland-based CityJet, a potential breakthrough in Superjet International’s attempts to open the Western Europe market.
"We expect that operations in Brussels will attract interest from other European Airlines, although we may now also tell about certain interest form other European companies to our aircraft," Masalov says. "We and CitiJet are agreed to sign a further five deliveries of Superjet. By the end of this year we’ll deliver all eight aircraft agreed."
Negotiations with Air France were expected to begin during the second quarter. Russian media reported in February 2016 that the SkyTeam carrier was intended to wet lease the 98-seat regional jet from CityJet, but no deal materialised.
"In the second quarter this year we plan to restart negotiations with Air France on wet lease operations for Superjet from CityJet," Masalov says.
Within Russia, prospects appear even brighter. Seeking to restore air routes that once connected towns deep in the interior, the federal government has committed to subsidising regional airlines using Russian Aircraft. A start-up carrier, Rostov-on-Don-based Azimuth, expects to receive four leased Superjets this summer before launching operators.
New orders are also possible from major Russian carriers such as Oneworld alliance partner S7 Airlines. The Moscow-based airline has an agreement to lease 20 Embraer 170LRs from GECAS for domestic and international routes, but UAC believes the carrier could also add Superjets to the fleet in the near future. Rather than replace the smaller E170s, the Superjets could be used to replace a larger aircraft in the S7 fleet – 38 Airbus A319s.
"S7 is planning to change their outdated A319 aircraft and we have prepared an initial proposal for S7," Masalov says. "In about three years S7 is planning to substitute this aircraft and we are planning to participate in these plans."
So far, the list of sales prospects is based on the aircraft in service today that seats 98 passengers in a standard layout. UAC is designing a series of upgrade packages, including a stretch version that could seat up to 124 passengers. But Masalov says airlines are not waiting for the larger aircraft to become available before lining up for orders.
"We haven’t had negotiations with any airlines about a stretched version as it is still in development – except for Interjet," says Masalov. "We asked them if they would be interested. They said: 'Okay, it would be interesting but only with the existing engine'."
The Superjet first flew nine years ago with the 15,400lb-thrust (69kN) SaM-146 engines produced by PowerJet, a joint venture between Russia's Saturn and France's Snecma. To improve performance and sales, the Superjet will be upgraded in three phases stretching over the next six years, Masalov says.
In the first phase, UAC has targeted a package of minor efficiency and system reliability improvements. In the next step, the Superjet's relatively high-aspect ratio wing will be extended slightly with winglets, while the fuselage will be lightened to improve efficiency. After 2021, UAC plans to introduce the stretched model with a 16,000lb-thrust engine.
Although Interjet’s notional interest in the stretched model is contingent on preserving the SaM-146 engine, UAC is open to looking at other suppliers. Such a re-engining presents an opportunity to introduce a new Russian-made engine. United Engine Corp is developing the PD-14 engine for the Irkut MC-21, but the core could be resized for larger and smaller applications. At the moment, however, Superjet prefers to stick with existing options, including PowerJet and Pratt & Whitney.
"We need to start our search with SaM-146 or Pratt & Whitney because of course we’re not sure the PD-14 will be ready in this short period of time to propose," Masalov says.
PowerJet partner Safran may also be able to offer improvements to its portion of the SaM-146, he adds. Since introducing the engine, the French manufacturer has also developed the 12,000lb-thrust Silvercrest engine for the business jet market and collaborated with GE Aviation as part of the CFM International consortium to develop the Leap powerplant family.
"I have doubts that Silvercrest will have the same power characteristics as SaM-146 but Safran may consider some experience from Silvercrest when they prepare their proposal for our aircraft," Masalov says. "Silvercrest is usually used for business jet aircraft and has other operational performance."
The regional jet market is becoming increasingly crowded with sophisticated competitors. Embraer plans to introduce the E190-E2 into revenue service next year with P&W geared turbofan engines, a new wing and fly-by-wire flight controls. Bombardier has introduced the CS100 with a composite wing, P&W geared turbofan engines and fly-by-wire flight controls. The Superjet was designed to compete with the original E-Jet and CS100 in the 90-110-seat segment. The stretched model with an improved engine will form Superjet's response to Embraer’s latest E-Jet model.
"We think that by 2021 to 2023 we’ll have better operational efficiency and characteristics than Embraer or Bombardier," Masalov says.