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Aviation: Brussels discards SuperJets

Today, Brussels Airlines returned the last of the Sukhoi SuperJets it has leased from Irish ACMI (aircraft, crew, maintenance and insurance) operator CityJet after a little less than two years. The Belgian airline signing up for SuperJets was hailed as a breakthrough deal for the Russian manufacturing industry which had failed place aircraft with western airlines until then.

There’s a commonly held view that Russian aircraft are unreliable – maybe even dangerous and certainly inferior to the western equivalents, so when Brussels Airlines (BEL) took on the SuperJets plenty of eyebrows were raised. The reality was somewhat removed from popular perception. Russian aircraft tend to be rather hardy and robust, designed to withstand the rigours of the harsh winters in their home country. The extremely severe weather impacts operations though, and many mishaps can be attributed to operations being conducted in conditions that would see most European and US airlines throw in the towel. While they are by no means perfect, it is in many respects the adversity of the operational environment that has given rise the myths about Russian designs. The ideas were perpetuated by images of rows of half-derelict Soviet aircraft parked at airfields around the country, seemingly not being used for months or even years on end. But those pictures pointed to a different problem: the disfunctional supply chain airlines relied on too keep their aircraft in the air. Without spare parts, their aircraft were grounded.

The Brussels deal

It was April 2017 when, CityJet started flying the first of seven Sukhoi SuperJets (SSJ) on behalf of Brussels Airlines, replacing Avro RJ85s. The new aircraft were ideal for thin routes across Europe. They had already developed a reputation for being about the best that Russia could offer, and although they burned a little more fuel than the western equivalents (the Embraer 190 and the Bombardier CRJ-900 / -1000) they were more economical than the four-engined jets they replaced.

Brussels Airlines has returned the Sukhoi SuperJets

it leased from CityJet in Ireland. (Transport Pixels)

The operation started slowly as the fleet built up, but ran reasonably well at first and passenger reaction to the new type's airy cabins was very positive. But then the delays and cancellations started to mount up. Matters reached a head in May 2018 when on one occasion four of the six SSJs CityJet made available to the Brussels Airlines were grounded. The period between May 16 and May 26 was particularly bad and on some days Brussels Airlines was forced to cancel as many as 20 SSJ flights. The agreement with BEL called for four aircraft to be available on a daily basis, but sometimes CityJet struggled to cover the contracted flying with seven SSJs (by comparison, most airlines plan one spare aircraft for every 15-20 in their active fleets).

By the middle of last year it was becoming evident that the Belgian airline’s patience was wearing a little thin. In the autum local media started reporting that the two year contract for the SSJs, due to expire in March 2019, would not be renewed. Retirements started at the beginning of the winter season and on January 7, 2019 the last was returned to Ireland to be parked. Air Nostrum Bombardier CRJ-900s and -1000s will replace the Russian aircraft.

Passengers liked the SSJ's spacious cabin but Brussels Airlines could not cope with the type's poor dispatch reliability. (Transport Pixels)

January 7, 2019 was a sad day for Russian airliner manufacturers. The SSJ was their great hope; the first aircraft that could compete with western designs on a level playing field Until CityJet signed its ground-breaking commitment for SSJs, the type had largely been confined to CIS countries and regions of Asia. InterJet in Mexico acquired 22 with options on another 18, but it was widely believed they had been bought at bargain-basement prices. And that was it as fr as customers were concerned. Even CityJet was small-fry, but the Brussels Airlines deal put the SSJ in the spotlight, lent legitimacy to claims that the SSJ was a good aircraft. CityJet and Brussels Airlines had potential to pave the way for much wider acceptance of the SSJ – and other Russian-built aircraft – in the eyes of western airlines.

What went wrong?

The Sukhoi SuperJet was actually fairly reliable during its time serving Brussels Airlines - its failure rate was not that far removed from its western equivalents. However, when the aircraft did go tech (break down), they often remained on the ground for a long time. At the root of the problems – and the swathes of cancellations – were the old Achilles heels, a lack of spares and a failure to provide support. Although some parts inventory was kept in Brussels, stocks were almost non-existent at other airports across the network. That meant that when an aircraft went tech away from base, often it could not be repaired and returned to service quickly. When parts were needed, the supply chain was frequently lethargic and struggled to get items to stranded aircraft expediently. Adding to the woes was a shortage of engineers licensed to support the SSJ, resulting in staff having to travel out from Brussels when repairs were necessary. That added to delays, especially when aircraft were grounded awaiting parts or a suitably qualified technician to fit them.

The Sukhoi SuperJet was the Russian aircraft industry's opportunity to break into the western market. (SuperJet International)

The issues were exacerbated by the SSJ’s restrictive minimum equipment list (MEL). All airliners have a MEL which stipulates what equipment must be working at departure time - e.g. both engines need to be work but if the coffee maker was broken the aircraft could still take off. The MEL also specifies what action the aircrew must take if a system has failed – for example, the MEL might state that if a fairing that reduces drag is removed from the airframe, the aircraft can still depart but extra fuel must be carried to cover higher consumption. The SSJ’s MEL was simplistic and did not offer many work-arounds for faults which would be acceptable for the aircraft to be dispatched with – Sukhoi hadn’t done the certification work to prove restrictions and the MEL simply said go or no go, leaving a potentially flyable SSJ on the ground more often than would be the case with a western aircraft.

Maybe one last chance

In the end it all became too much for Brussels Airlines, and the contract was terminated early. The CityJet SSJs have been grounded. Sitting alongside them are the severely dented aspirations of the Russian airliner industry. The Mexicans fared little better – more than half of the Interjet fleet is on the ground and some airframes have been canibalised for spares to keep the reset in the air. It turned out that SuperJet was no better at providing support in Central America as it was in Europe.

There is still one ray of hope. In late 2018 the struggling Croatian national carrier, Adria Airways, committed to take 15 SuperJets. The manufacturer greed to build a maintenance facility at the airline’s Ljubljana base where it claims it stock of spares and expert staff will be sufficient to ensure the operation is a success. The first aircraft is expected to enter service this year. Time will tell if the Adria operation is successful, or whether it will suffer the same problems faced by CityJet and Brussels Airlines. Reputation means a lot – despite what was said at the start of this feature – and on time performance is critical to the airline industry. At the moment very few Western airlines would consider SSJs – or any other Russian aircraft – no matter how cheap they are.

Text © The Aviation Oracle

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