Sukhoi tries to change sketchy image of Russian-made planes
Russian company Sukhoi has high expectations for the Superjet 100, the first wholly new Russian civilian-aircraft design since the breakup of the Soviet Union.
The New York Times
MOSCOW — Airlines are a cautious lot, slow to trust a new plane maker with multibillion-dollar orders and passenger lives. It took Embraer, a Brazilian maker of regional jets, two decades to become a major supplier to the industry.
So Sukhoi, a Russian company best known for supersonic fighter jets, did not exactly get off to an auspicious start. When it delivered one of the first of its highly promoted 100-seat Superjets to Aeroflot in June, a piece of safety equipment broke down, prompting Sukhoi to ground the plane.
Although the plane was fixed and is flying again, the lapse shows just how difficult a path Sukhoi faces to persuade Western airlines to buy airplanes from a Russian state company.
Russia's aviation industry has long been plagued by safety problems, breakdowns and lethal crashes, rendering it virtually unable to sell planes outside the former Soviet Union, Iran, Cuba and parts of Africa.
"Historically, Russian aircraft have an image that will take a long time to address," said Les Weal, an analyst at Ascend, a London-based aviation consultancy.
But Sukhoi has high expectations for the Superjet 100, the first wholly new Russian civilian-aircraft design since the Soviet Union's breakup. The list price for the chubby, single-aisle aircraft is $31.7 million, about one-third cheaper than comparable short-hop jets from Embraer or Bombardier of Canada, Sukhoi says.
Gone is the grim upholstery and fluorescent lighting of the cramped, even scary, interiors of the Tupolev series of jets still operated by domestic Russian carriers. The Superjet's cabin feels roomy, the overhead luggage bins can hold standard carry-on luggage and the lighting is soft.
The high-bypass engines, a novelty for Russian passenger planes, hum rather than scream at takeoff.
Sukhoi, which is in talks with Delta Air Lines and SkyWest as well as other Western airlines, hopes to sell 800 Superjets over the next 20 years. Besides two planes delivered to Aeroflot, Sukhoi has provided one to the Armenian national airline, Armavia. It has also agreed to provide 15 to Mexico's second-largest airline, Interjet. Sukhoi has 176 Superjet orders in total.
Rather than emphasize the plane's Siberian origins, with whatever associations with hardship or disaster that may evoke, Sukhoi has marketed it by pointing to its French and Italian partners, which worked in joint ventures to design the engines and provide the avionics.
"Yes, it is a Russian aircraft," said Olga Kayukova, a spokeswoman for Sukhoi's parent company, United Aircraft. However, she said, "It is made in cooperation with world-leading suppliers."
Stephen McNamara, a spokesman for Ryanair, the low-cost Irish carrier, said his company would have no qualms about looking at a Russian plane so long as it met European Union safety standards.
Most passengers, he said, don't care what type of airplane they fly. "They know the airline, but not the airplane," he said.
Ryanair has talked to Sukhoi about its new plane, he said, and the budget airline was more concerned that the plane was too small for its routes than about the reputation of Russian airplanes.
Despite the high barrier to entry internationally for new passenger jets, Kayukova said airlines were eager for alternatives to Embraer and Bombardier for regional jets and even were searching for a third supplier for midrange jets like the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320.
Ryanair this year announced negotiations to buy a planned Chinese competitor to the Boeing 737, the C-919, which is expected to be cheaper.
Alenia Aeronautica, a division of the Italian engineering giant Finmeccanica, owns about 25 percent of the Superjet program and is helping to market the plane in Western Europe, North and South America, Japan and Australia through a Venice-based subsidiary, SuperJet International.
Sukhoi consulted with Boeing on after-sales service, and it installed avionics from the French company Thales.
The plane is certified to fly in former Soviet countries and is awaiting certification for the EU. Sukhoi has said it will apply to the Federal Aviation Administration for certification only after it has a firm order from a U.S. customer.
"We will be facing the same problem as Japanese car manufacturers faced at the beginning," said Giacomo Perfetto, head of communications for SuperJet International. "When they see the airplane fly, they will change their minds."
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