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The first flight of the SuperJet-100, Sukhoi's new medium-haul
The first flight of the SuperJet-100, Sukhoi's new medium-haul passenger airliner, offers hope that Russia's program to resurrect its civil aviation industry may yet succeed.

Completion of the 40-minute test flight allowed the Sukhoi Aviation Holding to strike deals for delivery of another 27 planes, bringing its order portfolio to 100 airliners. The bulk of these aircraft will be sold abroad, but more important for Russians is the fact that the rest will be purchased by domestic carriers, augmenting Russia's significantly deteriorated air fleet.

The SuperJet-100 is the first civilian airplane to be launched into mass production since the disintegration of the USSR. Two decades ago the civilian air fleet was the pride of the country, with the Soviet Union producing a quarter of the world's civil airliners, and new aircraft developed by the Tupolev, Ilyushin, Antonov and Yakovlev design bureaus fascinating visitors at international air shows.

Now it's all gone. Since the late 80's the industry has steadily sunk into crisis, with plants falling idle, equipment aging, and thousands of engineers and workers forced to look for a different occupation. This resulted in production output decreasing to single planes, air fleet numbers falling due to natural wear and tear, and the airline system shrinking dramatically. In 1990 Russian airlines carried 103 million passengers, in the past year only 45 million.

Currently there are 5,700 aircraft registered in Russia, less than half of which actually fly. The bulk of the operable planes became obsolete long ago - only one tenth of them can be regarded as modern. The average age of long-distance airliners is over 17, and that of medium-haul aircraft over 30.

In the meantime, after a major decrease in the past decade, Russian air operations are again in high demand, their volume growing at a rate twice the world average. Transportation Minister Igor Levitin described to development of civil aviation as "still not corresponding either to the country's territorial scale or public demand" at the Governmental Commission for Industry, Technology and Transport Development session in February.

According to expert estimates, in the coming decade Russia's airlines will need 800-1,000 aircraft of various classes. Aeroflot alone will need not less than 130 new aircraft in the next three years, said its CEO Valery Okulov.

The Sukhoi SuperJet-100 is thought to be the first project to turn the tide. It was a complex job. Every step was a tough challenge. But for support from the state and largest domestic banks, the outcome would be unclear.

The plane, to be produced in three variants, is to replace the old Yak-42 and Tu-134, which are being withdrawn from service throughout the country. It may face competition from a joint Russian-Ukrainian aircraft, the An-148, to be assembled by the Voronezh Aircraft Holding and the Kiev-based Aviant. In the medium-haul class the MS-21 has the most potential, which may be used to replace the Tu-154 and Airbus A320. This may enable Russia to fully resolve its lack of medium-haul aircraft.

Russia has less to boast of concerning long-distance airliners. Production of the wide-body Il-96 is being phased out, and new airbus-type aircraft are not included in the schedule of domestic design bureaus and the Joint Aircraft Corporation (JAC), founded the year before last. But the shortage, though numerically smaller, is no less acute. According to some estimates, Russian airlines need between 200 and 300 airliners of this class.

They therefore have to make do with secondhand foreign models. Today foreign aircraft account for up to one third of passenger operations. By the day of purchase most of these planes have been in use for over 10, or even 20, years.

Last year Aeroflot shareholders approved a decision to buy 44 new Airbus A350 and Boeing-787 aircraft, and were immediately criticized for being unpatriotic. They would probably prefer to return to domestic manufacturers, but the latter simply do not produce competitive airbus-type aircraft, nor will they in the near future.

The JAC development strategy adopted two months ago set a goal for the domestic aircraft industry to establish its domination on the domestic market by 2015, and to achieve parity on the global market by 2025.

Considering that Russia's current share in the world's civil aircraft production is slightly over 1%, the intended goals are Herculean, and will be hard to reach without groundbreaking projects like the SuperJet-100.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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