This week marks fifty years since the first flight of the Tu-154 – the main aircraft in the history of civil aviation of the USSR. His time was irretrievably gone, and Airbus and Boeing quickly replaced him. But now Russia is making a modern narrow-body aircraft MC-21, which should at least in the domestic market press A320neo and 737 MAX. A similar development is conducted by China – Comac C919 is already undergoing testing. But their future is a big question.
Work on the Russian MS-21 began more than fifteen years ago, back in the era of the creation of the Sukhoi Superjet 100 – another ambitious project. In the late nineties, it became clear that for flights inside the country and to the nearest neighbors a modern short-haul liner is needed. Previously, Tu-134 and Yak-42 coped with this task, but their time has passed. Thus began the creation of the Sukhoi Superjet 100.
Initially, it was clear that it was created mainly for the domestic market, but foreign airlines did not particularly strive to buy the SSJ 100. As a result, several liners, except for Russian carriers, are listed in Mexican InterJet, Irish CityJet and another pair of carriers, which are difficult call famous. But the main problem of the machine is different – the plane has poor localization. The overwhelming number of components, including engines, main devices and other systems, are supplied from abroad. Because of this, there may be difficulties with ordering components, and downtime is expensive.
In the case of aviation, this is a normal practice: components for the Boeing and Airbus models will be taken to assembly shops from virtually all over the world. But the idea of the Sukhoi Superjet 100 was to create a product that was more independent from foreign markets. Otherwise, why is it even needed when there is, for example, the Embraer line of similar passenger capacity? Therefore, the situation with the MC-21 is different.
Boeing and Airbus Super Reply
Over the name, as often happens in the CIS, did not bother. The abbreviation stands to disgrace simply – “the main plane of the 21st century.” This is certainly not the sonorous Dreamliner or Concorde. The near- or mid-range aircraft (depending on the modification) is approximately half created from Russian components. Even the engines on some versions will be local – PD-14. Also on the choice of customers will offer the installation of the American Pratt & Whitney. The engines of this family are already used in the new Airbus A320neo, which will compete with the MC-21, while the PD-14 is not yet installed on serial liners.
An important difference between the MC-21 and everything that was previously created by Soviet and Russian aircraft designers is the abundant use of composite materials. In particular, they are made of wings and elements of the fuselage. Only the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and the Airbus A350 XWB, which are in a completely different weight category, have such a thing. For smaller planes, composites are still a wonder. They simultaneously increase strength and reduce weight, which directly affects fuel consumption and liner characteristics.
Airplane needed? Inexpensively
The first flight of the MS-21 made in May last year. Since then, the plane is constantly experiencing – at the end of the summer, for example, landing for the first time at night. Now Irkut Corporation is developing three versions of the MS-21: versions with indices 200, 300 and 400. The first two models are in priority, with the main orders being sent to a more spacious MS-21-300 (211 people in a single-class cabin configuration).
Recently, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yury Borisov announced 175 firm orders – that is, those for which they have already made a cash contribution. It seems that everything is not so bad, but at the moment there is a lot in common with the history of SSJ 100: almost all of the applications left by Russian airlines. Borisov said that in total it is planned to release about 870 aircraft, and 50% of them will remain in Russia – that is, the second half will go to foreign buyers. Perhaps the politician knows something, but so far his words seem overly optimistic.
And there are good reasons for this. Buying a new plane is a huge risk. It’s not just a matter of the likelihood of running into children’s sores, as was the case with the Boeing 787 Dreamliner: due to battery problems, the model had to spend several months on the ground, carriers suffered huge losses ($ 1.1 million daily in the case of the Japanese ANA). If the model turns out to be unclaimed, it will be difficult to find service technicians and, in fact, pilots – what’s the point for pilots to get a license to operate an aircraft that the world practically never uses? MS-21 promised to be almost twice as cheap as its competitors: about $ 50 million versus $ 90 million and higher for counterparts from Airbus and Boeing. But the Russian plane is filling its price and is already approaching to the same $ 80-90 million.
With western carriers, everything is clear – there is no point in buying an MS-21 for them. However, in Asia, the Russian plane is also unlikely to find buyers. Firstly, Airbus is very interested in this region: the huge A380 was created almost for him (his prospects are also in question, but while the situation is saved by the Emirates), here the A320neo and A350 XWB feel great. Asian carriers will hardly pay attention to the unfamiliar MC-21. Secondly, Boeing is also not going to give a promising market to the French rival. Third, China is preparing its short-haul aircraft.
In the Middle Kingdom are working on Comac C919. The aircraft has much in common with the history of the MC-21. At first, the concern made a small ARJ21, and then took up the larger liner – so the C919 began to take real shape. The Chinese car is also positioned as an analogue and a potential replacement for Boeing and Airbus. And the C919 will also be fully ready in the early 2020s.
The aircraft will receive engines manufactured by the US-French CFM International. On the analogue from the Chinese manufacturers have not heard anything. The development and certification of aircraft engines is an extremely costly and time-consuming process, and we need to oust Boeing and Airbus from the home market right now. Therefore, at least in the first years of production, the C919 will have the same power units as the 737 MAX and A320neo. Electrics, fuel system, chassis and many other elements again imported.
As befits a modern liner, C919 uses composite materials. But compared to the MC-21 is not so active: aluminum alloys dominate here, and the main section of the wings is composite.
Like the MC-21, C919 is planned to be released in three versions. Capacity is less than the Russian liner, up to 190 people. Now Comac has built two copies and is testing them. But the Chinese manufacturer does not have the experience that Boeing, Airbus and Russian designers have accumulated for decades – they have become adept at releasing fresh modifications of existing aircraft, and in developing and launching completely new aircraft. Comac is more difficult in this respect. The company expects to complete certification by the end of 2020 and immediately begin shipping liners.
The C919 has an important advantage – the price. It’s hard to believe, but the Chinese managed to make the plane almost half the price of competitors. It is expected that the new Comac will cost about $ 50 million – and this is with foreign-made engines, which cost about $ 14 million apiece. At the expense of what such a reduction in prices and whether the notorious Chinese quality will make itself felt, is not clearly understood. Reputation can be a problem for aircraft in western countries.
On the one hand, if Comac manages to keep the price at the level of $ 50-60 million, European and American airlines, primarily low-cost airlines, will fully pay attention to a new manufacturer. On the other hand, experts believe that the purchase of the C919 will cause a negative reaction from the passengers: stereotypes around China will have an impact. It is psychologically more comfortable for people to fly on famous liners, and the price of an aircraft is a problem for the airline. But there is a plus: it is possible that the emergence of a more affordable aircraft will force Airbus and Boeing to reconsider its pricing policy.
At the same time, the C919 is still doing better than the MC-21. Comac can live off the domestic market. So, more than eight hundred applications have already been made for the Chinese aircraft . According to some information, about two hundred of them are firm orders.
The numbers in the MC-21 and Comac C919 armor look optimistic until you look at the orders of the Boeing and Airbus. The updated 737 MAX family received more than four and a half thousand firm orders, and more than six thousand transactions were executed on the A320neo. Some airlines book over a hundred liners at a time. This is without taking into account past modifications that have been in use for a long time. So the chances of both Russian and Chinese aircraft on the world market no longer seem so rosy.