Air Transportation: Russia Comes Up Short Again

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August 8, 2013: Russia keeps trying to reach Western standards for military and commercial aircraft and keeps coming up short. The end of the Cold War was to have made it possible to close the quality gap, because with the Soviet Union gone Western nations were allowing Russian firms to buy Western technology. It hasn’t worked, at least not yet. The latest failure, the Superjet 100, is not yet officially a failure but that’s where it is headed.

While Superjet 100 has racked up over 200 “sales” few of those are confirmed and only 28 of the aircraft have been built so far. Full production began two years ago, but since then there have been two embarrassing accidents. In May 2012, a Superjet 100 crashed during a demonstration flight in Indonesia, killing 37 passengers and eight flight crew. The aircraft flew into a mountain surrounded by clouds and that was blamed on the Russian flight crew ignoring the collision avoidance system alarm because the pilot was apparently distracted by talking to a potential customer. The second accident occurred in July 2013, when a Superjet 100 landing in Iceland did so without its landing gear because the automatic landing system failed to lower the landing gear. No one was killed, but the reputation of the aircraft was further damaged.

The fatal accident last year was embarrassing enough, but what has really hurt sales are the experiences of early users who complain of unreliability, low use rates, and poor support from Sukhoi (the manufacturer). This is a familiar experience with anyone who has used Russian aircraft (military of commercial). The Superjet 100 was to be a “Western style” (in terms of reliability and support) aircraft. That has not been happening and the future does not look bright for this aircraft. 

The Superjet 100 is a 38 ton regional transport that that can carry up to 83 passengers for up to 2,900 kilometers. It was built in Russia to Western standards using a lot of Western firms as suppliers or production partners. That helped but not enough. Russian management techniques and labor relations are still the major problem, which are made worse by a lot of corruption.  Russia invested over a billion dollars into developing the Superjet 100. In theory it would exploit a market segment that was vulnerable to new competitors. If Russia could pull this off, it would also make Russians military aviation more competitive as well.

The last time Russia tried to make this quality jump they failed in a spectacular fashion. That was the Il-96 wide body aircraft. While four of these big jets were delivered to the Russian Presidential Air Detachment in 2009. What's remarkable about these four Il-96s is that they comprise about 14 percent of all Il-96s manufactured in the last twenty years. These four aircraft act like the U.S. Air Force 1 aircraft and fly Russians senior leaders around. This gives the Il-96 lots of screen time, as it ferries Russian leaders to overseas meetings. This has not helped sales.

In Russia the military and civil aviation manufacturers share many of the same suppliers. If one dies, the other will likely follow. The government provides subsidies, but not nearly enough to prop them to the degree they enjoyed during the Soviet period.

It was believed that the Il-96 would be Western enough to compete. This included equipping some with Western engines and electronics. Nothing worked. While Boeing and AirBus aircraft were more expensive, they were more efficient and reliable, thus making them cheaper to operate and cheaper over the life of the aircraft. Russia could not afford to design and build more advanced models of airliners like the Il-96 to match Western aircraft. Thus the Il-96 barely remains in production. Actually, all the Il-96 factory does these days is produce upgrades and modifications for the aircraft. With the delivery of the aircraft to the Presidential Air Detachment, production stalled. Only 29 have been ordered or built so far. The latest delivery was this year, but three Il-96s are in storage and there are few sales prospects.

The Il-96 is the long range version of Russias first wide body transport, the Il-86. This aircraft entered service in 1980, and 106 were built (and none remain in service). The Il-96 (a shortened version of the Il-86) was completing its development in the late 1980s, just as the Cold War (and the Soviet Union) was ending. That also ended the captive market (all the communist countries) that Russian aircraft manufacturers had. While modern Russian airliners are cheaper than Western ones (Il-96 goes for about $100 million, about a third less than comparable Western models.), they still have a reputation for shoddy construction and uneven performance. Even Russian airlines preferred Western airliners, even though they were more expensive.

The 250 ton Il-96 has four engines and can carry up to 262 (standard, or a max of 435) passengers 12,000 kilometers (across Russia, or either the Atlantic or Pacific oceans). This is about twice the range of the Il-86. The Il-96 was built to last about 20 years (20,000 landings and 60,000 flying hours). In contrast, the first wide body, the U.S. B-747, first appeared in 1972. This 333 ton aircraft could carry 452 passengers for 12,000 kilometers. Over 1,400 were built.

While the Superjet 100 and Il-96 (and An-148 and several others) have failed to match Western aircraft, each attempt brings Russian manufacturers closer to their goal. The Russians may be losing here but they are also gaining. 

 


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