Sukhoi Civil Aircraft's Superjet programme seemed on the brink of financial calamity entering 2015.
A slow-starting production system had already produced a series of annual losses and an overall debt of about $2.5 billion. On top of that, the plummeting value of the Russian rouble only served to increase the cost of the Superjet 100's heavily imported aircraft systems.
By late January, the Fitch Ratings agency had lowered Sukhoi Civil Aircraft's debt to the top tier of its non-investment grades, but warned that even a "perceived waning" of support from the Russian government for the Superjet programme could sink SCAC's rating even lower.
It soon became clear that the Superjet's supporters had little to fear. The 86-seat regional jet remains critical to the Russian aviation industry's hopes of regaining its Soviet-era foothold in the global market for commercial aircraft. By late March, Russian president Vladimir Putin had committed to inject Rb100 billion (about $2 billion) into SCAC, relieving the United Aircraft subsidiary of a crippling debt load at a critical moment.
The $2 billion investment "gives us confidence in the future of the programme and gives us additional leverage in financing and developing the programme further", UAC chief executive Yuri Slyusar told Flightglobal in a recent interview.
"First of all, of course, the investment will be channeled to ease the existing credit burden, which is negatively affecting the manufacturing cost," he adds. "Some part will be devoted to potential investment in technical areas."
Fifteen years after Russian design bureau Sukhoi launched development of the small narrowbody, the Superjet is still balanced precariously between programme failure and success story in a perennially unpredictable market segment.
Flightglobal's Ascend Fleets database lists 66 aircraft delivered four years after entry into service, with firm orders for 115 aircraft remaining in the backlog, plus options to purchase another 15 and signed letters of intent to buy a further 77.
By comparison, Embraer launched development of the E-Jet family only a year before Sukhoi started on the Superjet but has produced four variants and delivered more than 1,110 aircraft over roughly the same period.
That disparity in sales comes in spite of several advanced technologies embedded in the Superjet design. In a different era of industrial and political co-operation, Boeing consulted with Sukhoi on the design of the Superjet. Alenia Aermacchi, meanwhile, contributed its own certification expertise and relationships with EASA and the US Federal Aviation Administration, and took a majority stake in the SuperJet International joint venture tasked with marketing the aircraft outside of the Russian and Asian market.
The Superjet emerged from that collaboration with a host of Western technologies, including a fly-by-wire flight control system designed by Liebherr, Thales-made integrated avionics and a high-pressure-ratio engine core provided by Snecma.
From a marketing standpoint, what the Superjet still lacks is a family of larger and smaller aircraft. Embraer offers four versions of the current E-Jet and Bombardier has three options between 70 and 100 seats. SCAC still offers only one option with 86 seats in a standard, two-class configuration.
Now that the Russian government has eased SCAC's debt burden, revisiting proposals to expand the Superjet product portfolio are high on the agenda.
"We are currently thinking in two major directions of this family development," Slyusar says. "First is shrinking or extending passenger capacity from 75 to 130. The second major direction is technical improvement in numerous ways. Basically, we had to have some time after the basic model entered the market to evaluate what is most needed, and then to slowly adapt this basic model to improve it."
The market for the Superjet is not static. It was developed in the same class of technology as the Bombardier CRJ700/900/1000 and E-Jet family. In three years, Embraer plans to deliver the second-generation E190-E2 with a more efficient wing and the Pratt & Whitney PW1900G geared turbofan engine. It could make SuperJet International's task much more difficult to expand the market for the Russian aircraft in the West.
So far, UAC has discussed plans to introduce winglets and reduce the weight of the Superjet, but the possible launch of a 130-seat version offers an opportunity to make more dramatic improvements.
The focus of any major upgrade would have to include the engine. The Superjet 100 is equipped with the PowerJet SaM146. It features a low-pressure section contributed by NPO Saturn, a subsidiary of United Engines (UEC), and a high-pressure section developed by Safran business unit Snecma. The high-pressure module was derived from Snecma's Dem21 demonstrator core, and features a six-stage high-pressure compressor and a single turbine stage.
UAC delivered basic performance parameters for a potential 130-seater to its engine supplier a year ago.
"Together jointly with Snecma we made a preliminary investigation of what it would take to modernise the SaM146, and so it is possible to make an engine based on SaM146 for this aircraft," said Vladislav Masalov, UEC's chief executive, in a recent interview.
The UAC's requirements for the 130-seat aircraft are not fixed, so the PowerJet consortium developed two options. The first option is a "light" upgrade programme involving an improved version of Snecma's full-authority digital engine control (FADEC) system and a 3% thrust increase. A larger modernisation is also proposed that includes upgrading the engine core and low-pressure section, Masalov says.
If more fuel efficiency is required for the Superjet to compete on an even basis with a new class of regional jets powered by geared turbofans, Masalov says, UEC can provide another option.
Another UEC subsidiary, Aviadvigatel, is developing the high-bypass PD-14 engine as a Russian-designed alternative to the P&W geared turbofan for the Irkut MC-21, a narrowbody in the same class as the Boeing 737-800 and Airbus A320.
"We can use ideas from the PD-14 engine and incorporate it into an engine of this lower thrust class," Masalov says, "and it will give you a boost of efficiency."