Russian aviation industry: what new aircraft expected in new decade
Today I would like to talk about the Russian aviation industry, its current state and the plans for development, especially since there are certain reserves in the hangars that allow us to look optimistically at the future of aircraft construction in Russia, writes Artur Safiulin, a columnist for Realnoe Vremya, economist with extensive banking experience. We must pay tribute to the Russian authorities that slowly but surely the new models are getting closer to the series, and in several segments. Even ten years ago, it seemed that our fate now is purely narrow-body regional vessels, such as the Sukhoi Superjet 100. Everything else was just a dream.
Current state of aviation industry — Soviet reserve is almost exhausted
In February 2006, a decree was signed on the establishment of the United Aircraft Corporation (UAC). Fifteen years after the creation of the UAC, it was realised that the plans to capture the world market turned out to be too optimistic. There is a return to the idea: as in the times of the USSR, the produced aircraft will fly mainly in the “home” sky and be operated by Russian carriers. The new concept will revive the mid-range MS-21 and breathe new life into the short-range Sukhoi Superjet 100, and then set up the production of the Il-114-300 and Il-96-400M. One shouldn't forget about the Russian-Chinese long-haul CR929.
At the moment, there are two different views on the UAC. Marketers believe that the development of the corporation does not make sense. The maintenance of factories whose products are not in demand in the conditions of international competition puts a heavy burden on the budget, which annually covers their losses. Statesmen say that the centenary history of national aeronautics is part of the cultural heritage and cannot be placed on the sidelines of history. It is important to preserve the competences in the aircraft industry and prevent Russia from disappearing from the top league of countries with their own access to the sky.
UAC's initial strategy is expected to occupy 12-15% of the global market by 2025. It would be difficult to compete with Airbus and Boeing, which produce 600-800 aircraft a year each — so the focus was on niche products. Was it successful?
The only Russian aircraft that was sold abroad was and still is the Sukhoi Superjet 100, which was put into operation in 2011. It was supposed to occupy a relatively free niche of regional aircraft, but while it was being prepared for commissioning, several competitors appeared — Bombardier C Series, Embraer E-Jet in different variants. Due to the pricing policy, Embraer's position has become very strong and the promotion of Superjet in foreign markets is a problem. Initially, it was planned to sell 70 pieces a year, although the entire global demand in this segment is 100 pieces. As a result, the sales results of the Superjet are perceived as a failure. Since 2018, there have been unsuccessful attempts to sell to Thailand, Slovenia, Peru, Iran, and Zambia.
The coronavirus epidemic has also made its own adjustments (both negative and positive). In particular, in 2019, an agreement was reached on the sale of 40 aircraft to the Norwegian low-cost airline Norwegian Air Shuttle. In the autumn of 2020, the deal was suspended. In 2019, the only European operator — the Irish company CityJet — refused to use Superjets. In the rest of the world, less than ten aircraft fly in Mexico of the low-cost InterJet, in the Thai Air Force and in the state entities of Kazakhstan.
The UAC claims that the pandemic has not affected the pace of production, but they had to hold off on marketing actions. For reference: in 2016, 19 pieces were produced, in 2017 — 33 pieces, in 2018 — 24 pieces, in 2019 — 18 pieces, in 2020 — 11 pieces.
There are also positive aspects of the pandemic — new prospects are opening up for the Superjet, since many flights on which large Airbases and Boings flew are now underloaded and it is more profitable to launch a 100-seat plane with a full load. A good example is our Russian company Azimut, whose results in 2020 exceeded those in 2019.
Another reason for the lack of demand for our aircraft in general is the lack of a after-sales service system. Due to the banal lack of timely delivery of spare parts, a so-called “aviation cannibalism” flourishes, when carriers are forced to keep some of the aircraft on the ground in order to disassemble them for spare parts to maintain the rest in the sky. The plane must fly constantly, this is the basis for the economy of airlines. Sukhoi can be understood, of course, it is expensive for them to keep service centres around the world, like Airbus and Boeing do, which can afford it due to their size. Airlines will always prefer to buy equipment from a trusted manufacturer.
We must pay tribute to the UAC, much has already been done: warehouses of long-cycle spare parts have been created, allowing them to be delivered 24/7/365, a structural repair shop has been introduced, and a service centre has been opened in the Far East. These centres will also be used in the future by new models of Russian aircraft, such as the MS-21.
Plans for the future
In January 2020, the government of the Russian Federation issued a decree on subsidising Russian airlines for the presence of domestic-made aircraft in their fleet. Subsidies are a great tool to support our aviation industry. Many would say that it will happen at the expense of taxpayers, and this is absolutely true, but we need to think more broadly. We cannot afford to completely destroy this industry, lose our competencies, or destroy production chains. The industry employs thousands of people, and the production of new aircraft in series will restore the prestige of technical professions and cause a multiplier effect in related industries. In my opinion, it is better to subsidise the production of civilian aircraft than to multiply the next batch of tanks, which in the modern world are blown to dust by drones.
Naturally, the domestic market now will be the main market. The customers will be Aeroflot, Gazpromavia, Yakutia, Yamal, State Transport Leasing Company (GTLK), VEB-Leasing, Sberbank Leasing, PSB Leasing and others. Even before the launch of production, this model allowed the distribution of 175 pieces of MS-21 aircraft. In the new development strategy, Aeroflot decided to transfer its entire fleet of Superjets (in the future, 154 pieces) to the subsidiary airline Rossiya for domestic transportation, and under its own brand, only Airbus will fly, to become a so-called “five-star company”. Besides, 30 Superjets will be sent to the Red Wings airline. This company is implementing a project aimed at developing direct traffic between the regions, bypassing Moscow. In the last 5 years, such transportation has grown at a double-digit rate, and dozens of new routes on Superjets have been opened.
As for new aircraft, the information space is now mainly discussing Superjet and MS-21, although there are still several projects close to the series under elaboration.
This project provides for the creation of a new version of the Sukhoi Superjet 100 with maximum import substitution (replacement of 97% of foreign components with Russian analogues). The measure was forced due to the sanctions. In 2020-2022, the development of the components of the integrated management system is to be completed. KRET, the well-known concern in Tatarstan, is engaged in this. The inertial navigation system is expected to be completed in 2021, after testing, the system is scheduled to be certified in 2022. A new PD-8 engine is being created, which is scheduled for certification in 2023. In general, the type certificate is expected to be received in 2023, and the serial production of the Sukhoi Superjet NEW — in 2024. It remains to be happy for the Perm aircraft manufacturers, there was only one such manufacturer in the country, it would be sad to lose it.
This project of medium-range narrow-body aircraft is the most advanced and striking of all. The programme of the family is developed by the Irkut Corporation together with the Yakovlev Design Bureau, which is part of it. This is a completely created from scratch modern aircraft, like Superjet. The first flight was made in 2017. The serial production was postponed several times due to sanctions against the UAC and Rostec, and is expected in 2025. The type certification is planned for the end of 2021. Equipped with new PD-14 engines, it has the widest fuselage in the class, a wing made of polymer composite materials — only three aircraft now have this: Boeing 787 Dreamliner, Airbus 350 XWB, Bombardier CSeries. The aircraft claims the same commercial niche as Boeing 737, Boeing 737 MAX and Airbus A320peo.
It is too early to talk about the global prospects of the MS-21. In 2019, discussions were held on possible supplies of the aircraft to Turkey and Indonesia, but their results did not even indicate the signing of framework agreements. As Deputy Prime Minister Yury Borisov acknowledged, until Russian airlines “give an assessment” of MS-21, it is not worth waiting for major foreign contracts, since its advantages “still need to be proved”.
MS-21's direct rival, the Chinese Comac C919, enters the market earlier than our airliner, but it is primarily focused on domestic demand. Therefore, access to the huge Chinese market for the MS-21 is unlikely to be possible, since Beijing strongly supports the national programme.
This project of the turboprop regional aircraft is a reincarnation of the groundwork from the Soviet past. The production was established in Tashkent in the last years of the USSR, but then it was curtailed. In 2016, the project was restarted due to the proven design and availability of components within the country. The first test flight took place in December 2020. The series is to be released in 2023. One of the positive aspects is the creation of new systems and equipment: engines, digital flight and navigation system, more advanced wing design; digital design; automated line of in-line assembly installed.
This aircraft is designed for the local market, it has good fuel efficiency — turboprop engines consume 1,5-2 times less fuel than jet engines, it is undemanding to the quality of the landing strips. It is expected to replace Yak-40, An-24 and An-2 in the regions of the North, the Far East and Siberia. The specialised modifications will also be available — ambulances, aircraft for aerial photography, on a ski-wheeled chassis, and others.
Another representative of the Soviet school, who is not going to disappear from the radar. For the USSR, its progenitor Il-86 was an image project, the first Soviet long-haul airliner. Formally, the Il-96-300 is still produced, in modest quantities — about 15 pieces since 2000. It is supplied exclusively to the special flight squad Rossiya.
In 2016, it was decided to develop the new version — Il-96-400M. The programme is going behind schedule. The reason is that not everyone is sure that a four-engine aircraft will be needed on the market, especially since competitors in the face of Airbus and Boeing have already withdrawn such aircraft from production. Aeroflot in the mid-2010s refused to operate the Il-96 precisely because of the inefficiency of the fleet of this brand.
The solution to the problem could be the creation of a new PD-35 engine, the work on which is in full swing to offer the market the twin-engine Il-96. Perhaps, it will turn out that the old-new Il-96 project will give us the opportunity not to lose competence in the production of airliners of this class and create a new engine for future generations of aircraft.
This project of the Russian-Chinese long-haul aircraft for 280 passengers started ten years ago. But only by 2018, the UAC and the Chinese COMAC agreed on what characteristics the ship would have. The aircraft model was shown at air shows. It is to be assembled in Shanghai. The Chinese side is responsible for the fuselage, the Russian side is responsible for the wing mechanisation. The same new PD-35 engine will be serially installed on CR929.
The release date for the series is not yet clear so far, the forecasts are different — from 2023 to 2028-2029. The main question remains who will sell the joint aircraft and how.
What about Tatarstan and KAPO?
What can Tatarstan expect from this “holiday of life” in the Russian aviation industry? Not much, but there will be something, indirectly. Our esteemed Kazan Aircraft Production Association PJSC (KAPO) traditionally belonged to the management of the Tupolev Design Bureau, which in the current reality has no significant projects in civil aviation, except for specialised Tu-214, which are made for government agencies in limited quantities.
KAPO-Composite JSC participates in the MS-21 and CR929 projects, producing composite aircraft structural elements (wing and tail unit mechanisation units, as well as elements of the nose and tail of the wing by autoclave molding). The manufacturing process includes a full cycle of operations: production preparation, cutting of the main and auxiliary materials, laying out, forming, machine processing, conducting ultrasonic testing and geometry control, painting and assembling products.
KRET Concern, whose seven enterprises are located on the territory of the republic, is also actively involved in the programmes for the creation of new civil aircraft, as mentioned above.
In conclusion, I would like to note that the Russian aviation industry has found its own way of development, which should please all sky lovers. In my subjective opinion, the presence of the national aircraft industry is an indicator of the country's development, a reason to be proud and a great incentive for technical professions. The endless trade in natural resources and the resale of imported goods within the country cannot be eternal.
Rostec also understands this, having started a large-scale reform of the UAC. Significant optimisation will follow, which will save up to 300 billion rubles over 15 years. It is expected to break even and the corporation itself will be able to invest in the development of programmes. The factories have too large areas, low labour productivity. Everything will have to change — technological processes, design methods, production culture and, most importantly, the management of the entire industry. The Ministry of Aviation Industry of the USSR no longer exists!