With Maiden Jet Flight, Russia Squares Up To Boeing, Airbus

In its first post-Soviet foray into production of a mainline commercial aircraft which it hopes will rival those of its Western competitors, Russia carried out the maiden flight of its new MS-21 medium-range passenger plane on Sunday.

An MS-21-300 model had successfully completed a 30-minute flight at a height of 1,000 meters and traveling at 300 km an hour, said manufacturer Irkut Corporation and its state-controlled parent company United Aircraft Corporation (UAC) in a surprise statement.

Russia is trying to rejuvenate domestic industrial production to make the country less dependant on foreign firms having been squeezed by Western sanctions over its role in the Ukraine crisis.

Highlighting the growing competition to industry heavyweights Boeing and Airbus, the test flight comes just three weeks after China staged the maiden flight of its new C919 passenger jet.

The MS-21 will be snapped up by both Russian and foreign carriers, and is superior to its Western-made counterparts in many respects, Russian officials have said. But to shatter the transatlantic airplane duopoly, both Russia and China face a huge challenge, Western analysts say.

“The flight mission has been completed. The flight was fine, there were no observations which will prevent further testing,” test pilot Oleg Kononenko was quoted as saying.

Compared with recent 3-4 hour debuts of North American and European models, surprise over the flight’s brevity and relatively low altitude have been expressed by Western aviation sources.

“It suggests they either have severe limitations or may have had something happen and decided to come back,” said a Western flight test engineer, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The flight had been long enough to test everything that needed checking in the air, a UAC spokesman said.

Ranking it alongside major European and Middle Eastern competitors and ahead of big U.S. carriers such as Delta and United, flag carrier Aeroflot last year earned its fourth star from independent ratings website Skytrax.

To congratulate him and his employees with what the Kremlin called “a significant event”, President Vladimir Putin called Irkut General Director Oleg Demchenko.

State media have said numerous contracts with domestic and foreign carriers have already been agreed and production is expected to start in the next two years. It so far had “firm orders” for 175 planes, Irkut said.

With bigger sales books and more advanced technical know-how, America’s Boeing and Europe’s Airbus remain far ahead of their Chinese and Russian rivals.

But industry analysts say, with buyers attracted by its lower running costs, the new plane could win sales in Russia and some eastern European and Asian countries.

Up to 15 percent cheaper than current generation aircraft will be the operational costs for its new plane, Irkut said.

The Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 aircraft which currently dominate the medium-range narrow-body market, the MS-21 will be competing against both with a range of up to 6,000 kilometers. To achieve comparable 15 percent operational savings compared to previous versions, both companies recently upgraded those families.

It had agreed to purchase 85 aircraft, said state defense conglomerate Rostec, which is headed by close Putin ally Sergei Chemezov. Rostec said that Aeroflot, which currently operates a fleet dominated by narrow-body Airbus models, including 70 A320s, will receive lease of at least 50 of them.

(Adapted from Reuters)

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