Russia’s unique business and political environment has given birth to yet another exotic prospect – a new would-be airline that will reportedly specialise in domestic corporate travel charter flights using a sizable Superjet 100 (SSJ100) regional jet fleet.
Several high-profile Russian private and state-run companies, consisting of the SSJ100 manufacturer’s parent United Aircraft Corporation (UAC), aircraft lessor state-run VEB-Leasing, Moscow fixed base operator Vnukovo-3, the private all-Superjet fleet operator Azimuth Airlines and private National Reserve Corporation (NRC), have all agreed to join forces to bring the idea to reality.
Gathered at the Russian Investment Forum in Sochi, the partners signed a letter of intent on February 14 for the creation of a corporate charter airline using Superjet 100s. The project is the brainchild of Alexander Lebedev, the owner of NRC and the British newspaper The Independent, who, in the past, has significant experience of managing aviation businesses.
Lebedev first voiced his idea of a new corporate travel airline in May 2018, when he approached the Russian government with a suggestion to upgrade as many as 100 SSJ100s to VIP standards. If such a fleet was made available, Lebedev declared he is willing to invest in the creation of an airline that would focus on enhanced comfort air travel – “at a price 10 per cent higher than Aeroflot’s premium service.”
His concept is that the venture would take the shape of a public/private partnership in which the government would contribute the SSJ100 aircraft and a private investor would finance their customisation into VIP configuration. Resultant profits would be distributed among the stakeholders in proportion to their shareholding.
The freshly-signed letter of intent requires that each aircraft – which is normally capable of seating 98 passengers in a typical full economy layout – would instead feature “a business-class configuration with 56 passenger seats” and will be operated for “charter (on demand) flights in the interests of large [Russian] corporations, sports teams, concert tours and other group travel.”
According to the letter of intent, the partners have agreed to make financial estimates and elaborate the overall structure of the deal, coordinate the number of aircraft to be involved, and develop a detailed roadmap for the project.
The new airline is likely to utilise the Air Operator’s Certificate held by Azimuth Airlines and will be based at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport. Notably, both of those businesses have Vitaly Vantsev as a co-owner, who has pointed out that his experience with Azimuth “shows high demand for regional travel” in Russia. He also confirmed that the involvement of Vnukovo-3 could “easily provide comfortable ground and flight handling operations and will be best suited for the airlines working in this transportation segment.”
In turn, UAC’s president Yury Slyusar has revealed that a corporate-class operator of the SSJ100 type is “an important step” in [UAC’s] business development. “We think the business version of the SSJ100 might be the unique product for the market as it will provide an optimal ratio of the level of comfort and economic efficiency,” he assured.
His observation is echoed by VEB-Leasing’s general director Artyom Dovlatov who agrees that the letter of intent will have a positive effect on the SSJ100 programme, thus helping to shape “a competitive product and a new market niche.”
Lebedev was not quoted in the official press release but, explaining his concept in May, he suggested that the airline would employ a “club” principle. “One of the options would be placing a refundable deposit in NRB [a bank, part of the National Reserve Corporation] for 400,000 roubles [US$6,150], for instance.”
Lebedev’s previous experience in the commercial aviation industry includes a spell as an Aeroflot shareholder in the period 2003 to 2013, but he was unable to find synergy with the airline’s management. He has also co-owned lessor Ilyushin Finance Company and its affiliate Red Wings airline. In 2013 he sold 100 per cent of the airline to the lessor.
In 2017, Sukhoi Civil Aircraft announced it had calculated that the sports air transportation market was worth in excess of US$600m a year, and came up with the idea of Sukhoi Sportjet, an aircraft dedicated to flying sports teams. That imaginative project, it is understood, has since been quietly abandoned.
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