Russia’s New Airliner Takes to the Skies

The MC-21 is great, but probably isn’t coming to an airport near you.

Russia's MC-21 on its first flight (United Aircraft Corporation)
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Last Sunday the MC-21 airliner, Russia’s answer to the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737, took to the skies for the first time. Impressive though it is, the MC-21 won’t save Russia’s aerospace industry from itself. And executives in Toulouse and Chicago won’t lose any sleep.

The MC-21 represents a feat of design and engineering possible in only a handful of advanced nations, and results from Russia’s long history of building serious airplanes, both commercial and military. While Boeing and Airbus decided to replace their ubiquitous 737 and A320 families by simply re-engining them, which limits the new technology that can be added, the MC-21 marries those same new engines to a clean-sheet design. It’s a bit larger than its Airbus and Boeing competition, which should make it more economical on a per-seat basis.

Ever since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union and its captive Warsaw Pact-wide market, Russia’s commercial aerospace industry has struggled to compete with established Western manufacturers on the world stage. New airliners from Ilyushin and Tupolev fell flat, with only a handful ever built, and very few flew for non-Russian airlines. There’s nothing inherently wrong with those airplanes, and only the most discerning passengers would even notice any difference from the other jets.

But they probably won’t even get the chance. Russian airplanes are slightly less economical to operate than the competition from Airbus and Boeing, and since modern airlines operate on razor-thin margins in a very competitive business, no airline wants to buy an airplane that costs more to fly even in the best of times.  

“What really clobbered the Il-96, the Tu-204, and its predecessors, was the fact that everything was about two or three or four percent heavier than it needed to be,” says Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at the Teal Group. “That was just the nature of the Soviet design system.”

On a purely engineering basis, the MC-21 could give the Airbus-Boeing duopoly a run for their money, but that’s far from the only factor in buying an airliner. Of equal, if not greater, concern is support. Airliners are incredibly complex, and in some ways surprisingly fragile; airlines depend on elaborate, complex maintenance and repair networks to swiftly get parts and mechanics wherever they’re needed, to the extent that airlines regularly pay their competition if it means cheaper or faster service. A Boeing 737 is still a Boeing 737 no matter where it goes, and finding qualified mechanics and certified parts all over the world is relatively easy; if not, all the major manufacturers and airlines have teams and parts ready to fly anywhere at a moment’s notice. Whether Russian companies can replicate that worldwide is an open question, and few airlines want to risk being the test case.

The Sukhoi Superjet, a smaller clean-sheet design that first flew in 2008, was meant to change all that. The Superjet for the first time incorporated some Western equipment, and—most importantly—support was guaranteed by well-known Italian manufacturer Finmeccanica (now Leonardo). As a result, the Superjet earned the first major orders outside Russia’s sphere of influence: Mexico’s Interjet bought 30, and Ireland’s Cityjet bought 15. Thus far, neither airline has anything but praise for the Sukhois. But the Superjet entered the most competitive and fractured airliner market of all, going head-to-head against offerings from Bombardier, Embraer, and Mitsubishi, all of which are more familiar to Westerners. Finmeccanica withdrew from the Superjet program not long ago, and orders have since stagnated.

The fact that the MC-21 isn’t as economical to operate as its competition is a problem inherent to the entire Russian aerospace industry, which is almost entirely state-owned and centrally directed, according to Aboulafia. The new airliner does have some ready markets, however, with nearly 200 orders to date, and more likely. Almost all orders come from Russian companies. Others come from lessors who may not actually end up taking delivery. Nations around Russia’s periphery and those that enjoy close relations have a shorter, easier supply chain, and plenty of local experience with Russian aircraft. Russian airplanes are usually offered at cheaper prices than are those from competitors, so if fuel (an airline’s biggest cost) remains inexpensive, the airlines might come out ahead. Russian aircraft are also deservedly famous for ruggedness, and fly from airports and in conditions that would make an Airbus designer faint.

The MC-21 will probably be a fine airplane for those airlines that buy it, but don’t expect to see one at the gate for your next flight. Like the Superjet and its predecessors, MC-21 is probably fated to a long but limited life, mostly in Russia and nearby.

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