Commercially, Russia’s Sukhoi Superjet (abbreviated ‘SSJ’) is yet to ‘take off’.
The Russian regional aircraft was manufactured to compete with Bombardier’s CSeries (now Airbus A220) and Embraer’s E-Jet aircraft and intended to target the lower end of the size range for new technology regional jets. SSJ variants offer between 75-100 seats on the aircraft, whereas the A220 is in the 100-130 seat range, and E-Jet’s are in the 80-140 seat range.
The first 100-seat Sukhoi SuperJet flew its maiden flight on 19 May 2009 and entered service in 2011. Its first airline operator outside Russia was Mexican low-cost carrier Interjet in 2013, and the first delivery to an airline in Western Europe was to CityJet in 2016. In Russia, it’s in service with several carriers who are encouraged to purchase ‘home-made’ aircraft.
Operationally, the Sukhoi Superjet has been erratic. Safety concerns with the Superjet, (Russia’s first post-Soviet passenger plane), emerged soon after its introduction in 2008. A large number of employees at the Siberia factory responsible for working on the assembly of SSJ aircraft were found to have faked their university engineering degrees.
In 2012, a Superjet crashed into a mountain in Indonesia during a sales demonstration flight, carrying 37 aviation industry executives, members of the media, and eight crew members, killing all aboard. Around the world, the safety of the new aircraft was being questioned. The investigation into the crash found that the aircraft’s automatic collision avoidance system (which would detect mountainous terrain) ‘was working’, but had been ‘ignored by the pilot’, who was ‘possibly distracted by his conversation with a potential customer for the aircraft’. As a result, pilot error was eventually concluded as the primary cause of the crash.
In late 2016, 11 of Interjet’s SSJ100s were ground due to a stabilizer (tail) defect. Russia’s Federal Air Transport Agency issued an airworthiness directive requiring “detailed inspection of the stabilizer joint straps and bracket attachment bands.” During this period, I spoke to a friend who was one of the world’s few SSJ pilots, flying for the Mexican airline. We met up at Farnborough Air Show in the UK, one of the industry’s largest trade events. What he told me was, quite frankly, eye-opening. For the sake of anonymity, I’ll refer to him as ‘George’. Sitting for coffee, George explained he had taken the decision to resign from Interjet, over lack of trust in the aircraft he flew. He told me “When we’re reporting genuine technical issues with this aircraft, Russia hits back and tell Interjet it is us [pilots] who are handling the aircraft incorrectly.” George went on to explain how he didn’t feel the genuine concerns the crew had while operating this new Russian jet were being addressed properly, and so he left the airline — and is now flying for Aeromexico.
Interjet’s CEO boasted that the airline negotiated a “sweet deal” with the Russian manufacturer for the SSJ100, admitting the cost of 10 Sukhoi Superjet aircraft was roughly equal to the pre-delivery payment for one Airbus A320. He was quick to tell media “We are satisfied. It is a money-making machine.” Shortly after, Interjet were forced to ground Superjet aircraft due to ongoing technical faults, and a frequent need for urgent maintenance. Sukhoi fixed the problem and the aircraft returned to service in January 2017, but further groundings followed, including more in early 2018. The Russian manufacturer paid Interjet $40 million in compensation, given Interjet’s maintenance expenses rose at a sharp, and costly rate.
Now, Interjet plans to change its fleet to focus on Airbus, following problems with its Russian aircraft. The low-cost airline will remove the majority (and eventually all) of its Sukhoi Superjet 100s that were acquired since 2013. The airline has suffered financially, and the continuous groundings of its Superjet fleet have contributed to the large losses declared by the Mexican low-cost carrier.
In Europe, the SSJ was ordered by just one airline, Ireland’s Cityjet.
CityJet is wet-leasing all of its SuperJet fleet to Brussels Airlines (who needed extra planes), and has already returned one aircraft to Sukhoi. It’s thought CityJet have no plans to have it return to the Irish airline.
However, a frequent need for maintenance, owing to recurring technical faults has hurt Brussels Airlines operations and has left the airline frustrated with its wet-leasing deal.
Just six month ago, the Belgian airline was forced to cancel 92 flights operated by the Superjet, over just a 22 day period. A source at the airline said “technical problems occur very frequently. To make matters worse, there are little airports with engineers who are qualified to work on the SSJ-100. It’s simply unreliable, and we are not able to continue like this”.
This month, Brussels Airlines has again expressed its disappointment with its leased Superjets. While its contract expires in March 2019, the airline has now started to replace flights that would have been flown by the Russian jets, with Bombardier CRJ-900s. Furthermore, according to France’s L’Echo, Brussels Airlines has complained about the lack of maintenance manuals properly translated from Russian — adding to the complexities of operating this regional jet.
Several new aircraft experiences ‘teething problems’ upon entry-into-service — and recent history will show how the 787 Dreamliner suffered during its first year of service, along with the Airbus A380. However, Western airlines have, for a long time been sceptical of the safety of Russian-built aircraft, and ongoing issues with the Superjet isn’t helping sell the aircraft. Aside from Cityjet, there is not a single European airline operator of the airline. In The Americas, the Superjet’s last days at Mexican carrier Interjet are being planned.
Where Sukhoi’s operations are flawed, is in maintenance. Sukhoi’s ‘after-care’ for airlines is weak and costly for the customer. The manufacturer doesn’t have a single maintenance facility in the Americas, unlike Airbus, which services the rest of Interjet’s fleet, that has a strong maintenance presence, globally. In addition to this, being a smaller player in the commercial airliner sector leaves the aircraft more vulnerable to a worsened aftermath of technical faults, as the jet is frequently operating to destinations where there are no Superjet trained engineers, given the lack of international interest in the Russian regional jet.