SCAC (Sukhoi Civil Aircraft Company) announced they are planning on a 75-seat “shrink” version of their SuperJet. The current SSJ100 seats 98-103. The new aircraft will be upgraded in several areas, including engines, avionics, and aerodynamics. The image below shows an aerodynamic enhancement for the aircraft, including the addition of “saberlets” on the wingtips.
SCAC has been talking about a three-size family from 65, 75 and 95 seats from the onset of the program, and are following through with a second model. Shrinks are not as popular as stretches, as they have proven themselves to be economically compromised. The SCAC decision to move downward to a 75-seat version potentially fulfills a market need.
The idea of a smaller version is not outlandish considering the market. The more typical decision would be to go for a stretch beyond 100 seats. Doing this though puts the SSJ up against the CS300 and E195-E2 – which is going to be a very harsh competitive environment.
But look at the 75-seat market and you see a different situation. The market incumbents are Bombardier and Embraer. Moreover, the most influential market for aircraft of this size is the US regional airline market. What the US regionals select effectively drives the market for the rest of the world, given their large fleet requirements.
There are two models currently in favor in that market, the Embraer E175, and Bombardier CRJ900. Both have strong penetration into large fleets. The E175 is planned to retire in favor of the E175-E2, but the latter is too heavy for current US scope clauses. As long as the E175-E2 does not meet scope requirements, that aircraft has a difficult situation to overcome. Most of its orders are from US regional airlines that cannot deploy it, given current scope. The forthcoming, and delayed, Mitsubishi Regional Jet faces the same issue.
The current scope clauses expire in 2020 but are expected to be re-ratified in union contracts negotiations in 2019 to extend them for another five years through 2025. That effectively blocks the E175-E2 and MRJ from the US market.
This means US regional airlines will have limited choices, staying with the existing E175 and the CRJ900. The E175, while a modern aircraft, lacks the significant economic benefits of the re-engined E2 model, and the CRJ900 is an older, more uncomfortable design with limited passenger appeal. An opportunity exists if Sukhoi can effectively enter this market with a modern aircraft.
The redesign of the SSJ100 means losing four rows of seats with its five abreast configuration. It would seem that SCAC is eyeing the US market since the scope clause has two key numbers – 76 seats and 86,000 pounds MTOW. The SSJ can easily get the seat numbers right, but can it meet the weight restriction? SCAC would likely not have said a word unless they are confident. The OEM is talking about a new wing and using the same Pratt & Whitney GTF engines found on the MRJ. The GTF engines are likely to be heavier than the PowerJet engines on the current SSJ.
But these are technical questions that have technical solutions. The Russian aerospace industry has shown that with the MC-21 they can produce a world class composite wing that is light and efficient. SCAC also mentioned that they are considering adding MC-21 flight deck upgrades to this new SSJ. To get an idea of how influential the MC-21 is, the new SSJ even might be named the MC-21-75.
Assuming the new model SSJ moves forward, the real challenge is this: getting that aircraft certified by the FAA. Until this happens, no US regional can consider it. Is that a “bridge too far”? The answer is no. The US regionals are “bottom feeders.” Their margins are razor thin and any aircraft that brings with it complexity and high cost are not easily adopted. But at the same time, these airlines want lower fuel burn and improved efficiencies. Which is why they ordered the MRJ and E175-E2. The demand is there. SCAC ‘s decision to consider this market is not a bad choice at all.
The next step for SCAC is to confirm they can provide a better wing solution, utilize the GTF and meet those key scope limits. The market is attractive because US scope does not look like easing until 2025 at the earliest. But there is one more challenge that must be met. The US regionals are big and buy lots of aircraft – can SCAC produce fast enough? As one US regional airline president told us “If I want the SSJ, they’ll get it certified”.
The Bottom Line: SCAC is aiming at the right market segment. But it’s a challenging road to get to the right solution. This challenge is primarily technical, including obtaining FAA certification (not impossible since the SSJ has EASA certification), getting the aircraft scope compliant, having at least a 10% economic improvement over the incumbents, pricing the aircraft attractively, and ensuring certainty in a production schedule. If SCAC can accomplish all this, their chances of winning major orders will be quite good.