March 5, 2021

Superjet, Made by Sukhoi of Russia, Faces Industry Skepticism

So Sukhoi, a Russian company best known for making supersonic fighter jets, did not exactly get off to an auspicious start. When it delivered one of the first of its highly promoted new 100-seat Superjets to Aeroflot in June, a piece of safety equipment immediately 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,” Les Weal, an analyst at Ascend, an aviation consultancy in London that advises the insurance industry on safety, said in a telephone interview.

“Superjet may be excited about their airplane,” he said. “But I’m not sure that will translate into a lot of orders from mainstream airlines. It would take a huge leap of faith for an airline to turn to a newcomer.”

But Sukhoi has high expectations for the Superjet 100, the first wholly new Russian civilian aircraft design since the breakup of the Soviet Union. 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 that are 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 take-off.

Sukhoi, which is in talks to sell the planes to the American carriers Delta Air Lines and SkyWest as well as to 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,” Olga Kayukova, a spokeswoman for Sukhoi’s parent company, United Aircraft Corporation, said in an interview. However, “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.

On the Superjet delivered to Aeroflot, a meter to detect leaks in the pipes that funnel fresh air, called bleed air, into the cabin had malfunctioned. The company said passengers were never at risk, as the actual air supply was not affected.

Sukhoi found a silver lining in the incident by explaining it had grounded the plane from an abundance of caution that in fact illustrated its new safety culture. The Superjet was the first Russian airplane with such a detector, which is standard on Western planes.

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