Is Russia back in the deep end of global civil aviation? Five years after the entry into service of the Sukhoi SuperJet regional jet, the first Russian civilian program since the fall of the USSR, Moscow unveiled the second stage of the rocket on Wednesday June 8 in its plan to reconquer civil aviation. During a spectacular ceremony in Irkutsk, Siberia, the Russian aircraft manufacturer Irkut presented its new single-aisle MC-21, a 180-seat aircraft scheduled to enter service at the end of 2018. The aircraft attacks head-on the lucrative segment of the A320neo and 737 MAX, estimated at 5,000 billion dollars and nearly 23,000 aircraft over the next twenty years by Airbus. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev hailed “an event long awaited by our civil aviation” and a “considerable victory”.
In fact, the MC-21 is a major bet for the Russian aviation industry. “With Sukhoi’s SuperJet, we had a well-designed aircraft, equipped with Western systems,” Scott Hamilton, analyst at Leeham, wrote in February in a study of the Russian aircraft. The MC-21 follows the same path, but it incorporates more Russian technological developments. This is not a copy of a Western device. ” The plane, in which Moscow has invested 4.6 billion dollars, thus incorporates new wings made of composite materials, according to an industrial process developed in-house.
“Superior to Chinese C919”
The other big breakthrough concerns motorization. While the first aircraft were fitted with the PW 1400G engine from the American Pratt & Whitney, the other engine offered on the aircraft, the PD-14, was 100% Russian in design: it was entrusted to the engine manufacturer Aviadvigatel. “The MC-21 is clearly a giant leap from the SuperJet,” said Addison Schonland, analyst at the US firm AirInsight. It’s probably superior to the Chinese C919, because it’s made by a company with a stronger aviation history. ”
In fact, the device seems to hold up. Offered in two versions (MC-21-300 with 181 seats and MC21-200 with 150 seats), it has a wider fuselage than the A320neo and the 737 MAX, with 4.06m in diameter. The idea is to allow two passengers to pass each other, thanks to a corridor of 61cm (24 inches) against 48cm (19 inches) in the competition, which would allow faster boarding and disembarking. The engine chosen is also an asset: “The Pratt & Whitney engine will allow the MC-21 to display excellent economic and technological performance,” says Addison Schonland. Irkut promises fuel consumption 10% lower than that of the A320neo and 737 MAX. This leaves the experts skeptical: the analyst Scott Hamilton expects rather a consumption of kerosene comparable to that of the two bestsellers, which would already be an appreciable performance.
Can the Russian aircraft establish itself as the troublemaker in the single-aisle segment? The commercial success of the device is currently limited: 175 firm orders only, a good part of which is from Russian lessors (Iliouchine Finance, VEB Leasing, Sberbank Leasing, etc.). By comparison, the A320neo had 4,568 firm orders at the end of May, and the 737 MAX 3,090 orders. Not to discourage Irkut: according to Flightglobal, the Russian aircraft manufacturer is targeting 1,000 sales by 2030, 70% of which outside Russia.
Asked by Flightglobal at the last Paris Air Show in June 2015, Irkut boss Oleg Demchenko even saw bigger things: “It would be a joke if I told you that we are targeting 40 or 50% of the market. But if our planes were to reach 10 to 15% of the market, I would say that I was not wasting my time. ” To achieve this objective, the Russian aircraft manufacturer would have to sign 2,300 to 3,450 orders, which implies going well beyond its Russian captive market. The MC-21 can in any case count on an aggressive list price: according to the Russian agency Sputnik News, well informed on Russian aeronautical programs, the device is marketed at 70 million dollars, against 106.2 million for the A320neo and $ 110 million for the 737 MAX 8.