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Critical Report Adds To Russian Superjet's Woes

  • Claire Bigg

A Sukhoi Superjet 100 has suffered a string of setbacks since its maiden commercial flight in 2011.

A Sukhoi Superjet 100 has suffered a string of setbacks since its maiden commercial flight in 2011.

Russia's flagship carrier Aeroflot marks its 90th birthday on February 9, but a leaked Aeroflot report on the brand-new Superjet 100, the first passenger plane produced by Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union, is no cause for celebration.

The Superjet, designed to restore pride in Russia's once-vaunted aviation industry, has suffered a string of setbacks since its maiden commercial flight in 2011.

TAKE THE QUIZ: How Well Do You Know Aeroflot?

These have included development delays, numerous malfunctions, and a crash during a promotional flight in Indonesia last year that killed all 45 people onboard.

Aeroflot's damning report, published this week in the respected "Kommersant" daily, adds to the Superjet's troubled record.

According to Aeroflot, the 10 Superjets it currently operates -- which represent 8 percent of its total fleet -- were responsible for as many as 40 percent of all technical mishaps the airline experienced in 2012.

The document, described by "Kommersant" as the most in-depth analysis of the aircraft's performance so far, cites problems with the air-conditioning system, the controls, and the landing gear.

'Don't Pose A Threat'

Many experts nonetheless still regard the Superjet as a reliable aircraft and put the glitches down to the plane's newness.

"The aircraft is only now integrating [into] airline fleets, so isolated problems can sometimes occur in these early stages," says Igor Korotchenko, an aviation expert and editor of Russia's "National Defense" magazine. "But I really don't think these problems pose a threat to the project as a whole."

PHOTO GALLERY: Aeroflot through the years

The Superjet's difficulties echo the situation currently faced by Boeing's new 787 Dreamliner passenger jet.

Various airlines grounded the 50 Dreamliners in operation after a battery on one plane melted and another caught fire after landing.

U.S. federal aviation officials on February 8 gave Boeing the go-ahead to conduct test flights aimed at collecting more data about the battery.

'I Don't Believe In The Superjet'

In Russia, the Superjet nonetheless continues to draw fierce criticism.

Anatoly Knyshov, a highly decorated test pilot, says the aircraft should never have been flown in the first place.

"I don't believe in the Superjet and I don't believe in the team designing and producing this plane," Knyshov says. "The catastrophe in Indonesia shows that this plane is absolutely not ready for operation."

Knyshov accuses the international partnership behind the Superjet of botching its design.

The plane was developed by Russia's Sukhoi aerospace company in cooperation with Boeing, Italy's Finmeccanica, and French firms Thales and Safran.

The main concern in Russia is that the Superjet needs well-maintained airfields, still scarce in the country.

The string of malfunctions has also grated on Aeroflot.

Its first Superjet was grounded for weeks due to an air-conditioning problem.

In March 2012, an Aeroflot official told the "Vedomosti" daily that the airline wanted compensation from Sukhoi for losses incurred due to technical issues with its Superjets and delays in the delivery of spare parts.

"This plane was imposed on Aeroflot," Knyshov says. "None of Russia's 120 airlines took this plane, although it was designed for the Russian Federation. Aeroflot took it simply to show that the money had not been wasted. But it has been wasted. This aircraft will never perform its functions in Russia."

Russia so far has invested almost $3 billion in the aircraft, almost twice its initial budget.

Can't Go It Alone

Should the Superjet surmount its difficulties it will prove instrumental in replacing Russia's creaky Soviet-era fleet of passenger planes.

On the international civil aviation market, it has been touted as Russia's answer to similar planes by manufacturers such as Canada's Bombardier and Brazil's Embraer.

But the Superjet alone will not allow Russia to regain a strong foothold on the global market.

"The Superjet fills the niche for short-haul passenger flights," says aviation expert Igor Korotchenko. "But to become serious competitors, we need the airliner MS-21 to enter its commercial niche, too. It's obvious that we will not be able to compete against Boeing and Airbus with Soviet planes built according to Soviet production methods."

The MS-21, produced by Russian corporations Irkut and Yakovlev, has a capacity of up to 212 passengers.

Russia hopes to deliver its first MS-21 in 2017.
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    Claire Bigg

    Claire Bigg covers Russia, Ukraine, and the post-Soviet world, with a focus on human rights, civil society, and social issues. Send story tips to BiggC@rferl.org​


     

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