INSIGHT: Review of United Aircraft Corporation’s commercial projects

UAC commercial projects As of mid-2018, there were some 130 Superjet 100 aircraft in operation globally (Artyom Anikeyev / Transport-Photo)

Russia’s civil aircraft manufacturing industry, now consolidated under the auspices of United Aircraft Corporation (UAC), is on a flight path to greater efficiency. Once the programme’s key elements were initially identified, the state support system has since become fully operational in all stages – from aircraft development to sales. However, the sustainability of the on-going project is undoubtedly hindered by external political influences which will not only affect the prospects for further international cooperation but also the future marketing of Russian-built aircraft in the global arena.

In 2017, UAC delivered 32 commercial aircraft to customers. Of this number, 30 were Sukhoi Superjet 100 (SSJ100) regional jets, a total which the manufacturer claims brings its share of the respective market segment of regional jet airliners with a capacity of between 80 and 100 seats to 37.5 per cent.

According to UAC’s own estimates, this places it as the world’s sixth largest producer of civil aircraft (namely, jet and turboprop airliners with a seating capacity above 20 seats). The Russian manufacturer’s ambition is to raise its current 1.8 per cent share of the global market to 4.5 per cent by 2035. Obviously, this may become achievable only after the launch of serial production and deliveries of the corporation’s new civil products: the MC-21 narrow-body and the CR929, the wide-body programme which is being developed jointly with China’s COMAC.

Within the on-going reformation of UAC’s structure, the corporation’s civil assets are focused on Sukhoi Civil Aircraft (SCAC) and Irkut Corporation. In 2017 both companies began the merger process within UAC’s ‘civil division,’ a development that is due to be finalised in 2019. According to the initial plan, Irkut would concentrate on all of UAC’s commercial aircraft design competences, whereas SCAC would focus on marketing, sales and after-sales support of commercial products. However, such distribution of responsibilities does not appear to be final just yet. Currently, it is SCAC which remains in sole charge of Russia’s interests in the Sino-Russian CR929 project, for which a separate directorate has been established.

One of the ideas behind the creation of the independent civil aircraft division is the need to distance it from UAC’s military defence business, thereby hopefully eluding political sanctions whilst also promoting the continued cooperation with western partners and suppliers. It has not been ruled out that the commercial and defence businesses will be separated into two different legal entities. A plan is currently on the table in which UAC would come under the control of the state-run mammoth Rostec Corporation, which serves as an umbrella for some 750 aircraft component manufacturers, as well as the local rotorcraft monopoly Russian Helicopters.

SUPERJET 100

Although the Sukhoi Superjet 100 (SSJ100) remains UAC’s only revenue-generating aircraft programme, other projects are in development. In recent years the aircraft manufacturer Sukhoi Civil Aircraft (SCAC) achieved a steady, average flow of between 25 and 30 deliveries a year. In 2017 the number of deliveries reached 30, partly as a result of effective state support mechanisms, with all domestic deliveries financed via state-run lessors. The State Transport Leasing Company (known by its Russian acronym GTLK) was responsible for a total of 16 SSJ100 deliveries – nine to Yamal Airlines, four to IrAero and three to start-up Azimuth Airlines. VEB-Leasing delivered 12 aircraft to Aeroflot.

As of July 2018, there were some 130 SSJ100s in operation, mostly with Russian airlines, although some are with commercial and governmental operators in Europe, Mexico, Thailand and Kazakhstan. However, threatened by the existence of new-generation, western-built competitors, such as the Embraer E-Jet E-2 and the Airbus A220 (formerly the Bombardier CSeries), as well as by the might of the Airbus/Boeing duopoly’s expansion into this market segment too, the SSJ100’s future now hangs on the manufacturer’s ability to significantly improve the aircraft’s performance.

In response to this competitive challenge, SCAC is working in two marked directions. The first is to expand the operational capabilities of the existing platform to match customer demands. One such effort resulted in a modification – dubbed the SSJ100B-100 – which features more powerful PowerJet SaM146-1S18 engines, improved software for avionics and enhanced high-lift devices control systems. The testing of aircraft equipped with blended winglets (Sabrelets), which will be offered for both new aircraft and as a retrofit option, is also underway. The manufacturer has also conducted a series of tests to enrich the aircraft’s operational capabilities under different climatic conditions and environments, including testing of its navigation system near the North Pole.

The second path to a more sustainable future is the positive targeting of politically-sensitive clientele, such as governmental operators and countries under western sanctions. This requires a major reduction of western-produced aircraft parts and components by replacing them with Russian-made alternatives, which is the aim of the SSJ100R, the special ‘Russianised’ version.

However, while these efforts may help the programme to remain airborne, more radical modifications are needed to successfully compete with the arrival of new models envisioned by Embraer, Bombardier and, potentially, Mitsubishi. Typically, the recent change in SCAC’s top-management has redirected the likely flight path of Superjet’s future away from the stretched version to the shortened, 75-seat variant. Notably, a decade ago, the short version was considered as the base option at the programme’s launch. In reality, the desired outcome is de facto a virtually new model, with new engines and possibly a composite wing. Russia’s second largest carrier – S7 Airlines – has already voiced a cautious interest in the aircraft, which may enter the market in the 2022-2023 timeframe. A letter of intent, inked by S7 and SCAC in April, could mature into a firm order before the end of this year, for 50 of the version dubbed SSJ75, with an option for up to 25 more.

The manufacturer is meanwhile also continuing to work on improving the Sukhoi Business Jet (SBJ), including extending its range to 7,000 km by installing auxiliary fuel tanks.

Work on an improvement of the company’s after-sales support is also underway.

MC-21

Developed by Irkut Corporation, the MC-21 narrow-body is destined in the short term to become the flagship product of the Russian civil airspace industry. It made its maiden flight in May 2017 and, one year later, the second flight prototype joined the testing.

MC-21

The second flying prototype of MC-21 joined the testing programme one year after the first prototype’s maiden flight (Irkut)

Neither UAC, nor Irkut have been particularly diligent in their reporting on the test results. In July 2018 the manufacturer announced that the second flying prototype had been ferried to Zhukovsky to join the certification testing programme, and that three more aircraft were in the process of being assembled at the Irkutsk Aviation Plant. By July, the second flight prototype had accumulated some 14 hours of flight time, during which it reached an altitude of 12,000 metres and a top speed of 0.8M (TAS 850 km/h). Further testing is to be conducted at the premises of the freshly upgraded Flight Testing Facility (FTF) of Yakovlev Design Bureau, which recently acquired a new hangar and a new hub for the collection, processing and analysis of flight data.

The certification of the aircraft’s base version, the MC-21-300 powered by Pratt & Whitney PW1400G engines, is still scheduled to complete before the end of 2019, with the first deliveries slated for 2020. The backlog currently includes 175 firm orders, mainly from state-run leasing companies. There are three airlines currently claiming the title of launch operator: national carrier Aeroflot, UAC-associate Red Wings (owned by Ilyushin Finance Company) and the private Irkutsk-based IrAero (the city where the MC-21 is to be assembled).

Aeroflot is the largest customer, with a commitment for 12-years operational leases for 50 aircraft via Rostec’s subsidiary Avia Capital Services. The first 25 deliveries will each be powered by Pratt & Whitney engines but, from the 26th aircraft onwards, the Russian PD-14 turbofan may be an option.

By 2020, when the MC-21 is expected to be available for revenue operations, it will enter a highly competitive marketplace, as the demand for next-generation narrow-bodies may by then be significantly satisfied by the re-engined Airbus A320neo family and the Boeing 737 MAX. Both types have already entered service in 2016 and 2017 and, as iterations of tried and tested existing designs, by 2020 will have probably overcome any teething problems.

CR929

In the wide-body segment, UAC’s new product, the CR929, is being developed jointly with China’s COMAC. For the Russian industry, this project is an opportunity to retain the competence, share the development costs and gain access to the growing Chinese market for larger aircraft. For the Chinese partner, it is a chance to benefit from exposure to Russia’s expertise in aircraft design whilst, at the same time, building experience in developing such wide-body programmes.

In the one year that has passed since the China-Russia Commercial Aircraft International Corporation (CRAIC) joint venture was established in Shanghai in May 2017, the CR929 programme has reached several milestones. In December last year it passed the project’s Gate 2 stage, which defined the overall concept for the new aircraft family, which embraces three variants – the base CR929-600 platform, with 280 seats in a three-class configuration; the shortened iteration CR929-500 for 230 passengers; and the stretched version CR929-700, with seating capacity for 320 passengers. The general layout, including the shape and span of the wings, the length of the fuselage, the parameters of the nose and tail sections, and the location of the engines, landing gear and doors were all finalised in June 2018. According to these parameters, the CR929 should be somewhat more spacious than the rival Airbus A330-300 and its advanced A330-900neo versions.

This perceived advantage is indicative of the project’s primary focus on the Chinese market, which currently favours the A330-300 as its main ‘work-horse.’ The CR929 programme is now at the Gate 3 stage, a definition phase which is expected to complete by mid-2019.

CRAIC has also been sending requests for tenders for the supply of engines and engine nacelles, as well as for landing gear mechanisms. Although the planemaker has not disclosed who the potential suppliers are, it has admitted that it has received bids from seven engine manufacturers. General Electric and Rolls-Royce both have engines in the right thrust range to power the new aircraft, and may be on the list. Another option that has been brought to the table is the Russian-made PD-35 engine, which is currently under development.

The programme’s production schedule was first announced in June 2018, with assembly of the first prototype planned to begin in 2021, the maiden flight slated for 2023 and entry into service in 2025.

THE SEMI-CIVIL PROJECTS

United Aircraft Corporation has two more commercial projects in its portfolio – the Ilyushin IL-114-300 regional turboprop and the IL-96 wide-body airliner. Although there are currently no orders for these aircraft from commercial operators, they are nevertheless being artificially supported by the state in order to preserve the Russian industry’s competences and capabilities in their respective segments.

IL-96-400

The Ilyushin IL-96-400, four-engined, wide-body is considered a ‘bridge’ project, until the CR929 enters commercial service (Alexander Mishin // Transport-Photo)

In May 2016, the Russian government made a decision to upgrade and re-launch serial production of the Ilyushin IL-114-300 regional turboprop twin aircraft. Initially produced in Uzbekistan by the Tashkent Aviation Production Plant, the programme is now undergoing modernisation and relocation to Russia, following the trials of the similarly-fated IL-76 transport aircraft. Ilyushin, the type’s design company indicates that serial production of the aircraft may not restart before 2021. In the meantime it promises a more powerful engine, new avionics suit and a re-designed passenger cabin. The backlog currently includes a single letter of intent (LOI) for 50 units from State Transport Leasing Company (GTLK) signed in 2017.

A similar pattern is emerging with the IL-96-400M, the new passenger derivative of the existing four-engined wide-body freighter. Even though the only commercial operator of the type in the world is Cuba’s Cubana de Aviacion, in Russia their production is being sustained by orders from governmental customers with the purpose of preserving the competences of wide-body aircraft design and production capabilities of the Voronezh Aviation Production Plant (VASO).

The modernisation effort, which was launched in 2017, predicates a production output of an annual rate of two-to-three aircraft up to 2025, the year when the CR929 is expected to enter commercial operations. The list of potential customers includes Rossiya Special Flight Squadron, which is responsible for carrying the country’s high-ranking officials, the Russian Defence Ministry and other government bodies, a situation that qualifies both the IL-114 and the IL-96 as ‘semi-civil’ projects.

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