MC-21: an airplane of the future or an airplane without a future?

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MC-21: an airplane of the future or an airplane without a future?
MC-21: an airplane of the future or an airplane without a future?

Passions over the first flight of a Russian passenger plane have subsided somewhat over the past months. It's time, without unnecessary emotions, to figure out whether there are any prospects at all for the main hope of the domestic aircraft industry.


Engines and aircraft

The MC-21 airliner took to the skies for the first time on May 28, 2017. The aircraft, which received a spectacular white and blue color, confidently fulfilled the planned plan, thus marking a new milestone in the history of the Russian aircraft industry. Optimists see the new short-to-medium-haul narrow-body passenger aircraft as a competitor of the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 families - airliners that conquered the Russian medium-haul passenger air transportation market and long ago ousted domestic aircraft of the Soviet era from it.


By the way, even the authorities of the Russian Federation admit that the current picture is far from “ideal”. “Our market today is almost 80% - Airbus and Boeing,” said Dmitry Rogozin, Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation in 2017. Speaking about difficulties, the statesman, however, usually does not forget to mention the measures designed to support new Russian airliners, including the MS-21.

How do they plan to achieve this? It can be assumed that the price will become a competitive advantage. The announced cost of the MS-21 is $ 90 million. For comparison, the price of the Boeing 737 MAX aircraft - one of the potential competitors of the MC-21 - varies, depending on the configuration, from $ 90 million to more than $ 100 million. The cost of the Airbus A320neo starts at $ 90 and ends at more than $ 120 million.


Obviously, the new Russian aircraft may indeed cost less than its foreign counterparts, but, as you can see, the difference will not be so great, if at all. One of the reasons for this is the widespread use of imported elements. The aircraft, which has risen into the sky, is equipped with American Pratt & Whitney PW1000G turbofan engines, which they initially want to use on all the first aircraft produced. This is just the tip of the iceberg: without foreign components, the very birth of the MS-21 would have been impossible in principle. The ideologists of the MS-21 project like to recall the PD-14 engine family, which should complement the "American" in the future, but the prospects are still vague.

According to plans, the serial production of PD-14 was supposed to begin in 2016. Now the start of mass production has been postponed to 2018. It is important to understand that competitors are also on the alert, new engines and new versions of old ones appear. More economical, greener and more affordable. In this regard, it cannot be ruled out that the MS-21 will use American Pratt & Whitney or other foreign engines throughout its "life". Good or bad for the project is another matter. In the end, the choice of the engine, as, indeed, and other structural elements, will determine the criterion "price / quality", and not patriotic sentiments.


In general, it is hard to believe that the MS-21 will surpass Western counterparts in terms of the technological level. Still, Americans and Europeans have incomparably more experience in creating modern medium-haul passenger aircraft. Competition, however

Commercial prospects are the first and most important thing to talk about in this case. In our time, it is not difficult to produce anything. This applies, oddly enough, even to such a high-tech industry as aircraft construction. The problem is different - to sell the finished product. The strongest "players" in the aircraft industry are the already mentioned Boeing and Airbus: the external market is contracted by these companies by 75% until 2025.There are also the Brazilians with their Embraer and the Chinese with the Comac C919 project - a direct analogue of the MC-21, which also wants to conquer the market. It is difficult to assess the prospects for the brainchild of the Celestial Empire, because the PRC does not have much experience in creating modern medium-range aircraft. On the other hand, businesslike Chinese will surely find their niche. They are good at it almost everywhere.

By the way, it is Comac C919 that can be considered the main competitor of the MC-21. Both aircraft have not yet been mass-produced, both are a "test of the pen" for their countries, if we talk about new medium-haul passenger aircraft. And in both cases, the market will have to be conquered, as they say, from a low start. Note that if the new Boeing and Airbus are already in full operation, the C919 and MS-21 still have a long way to go in the fight against technical deficiencies and "childhood" diseases. All this is normal for any new model of aircraft, and there is no getting away from it.


Official prices for the C919 airliner have not yet been presented. Earlier, experts called the figure of $ 50 million, which is about half the cost of both European and American counterparts, and the Russian MS-21.

In this sense, the prospects for the brainchild of the Irkut corporation are not very bright. Most likely, the MS-21 project will never pay off at all. The Russian market is rather big, but in order to gain profit, the aircraft designers need to export it. And this is where the fun begins. "Normal", firm, agreements were signed only with Aeroflot and a number of small Russian state-owned leasing companies. Everything else is either "agreements of intent" or single orders that do not play any role in the fate of the MS-21.

There are only three foreign customers. In total, the agreements with them imply the supply of about 20 winged aircraft. At the same time, there is still no firm contract with any foreign customer. In simple terms, the MC-21 seems to have failed in the global market. Perhaps that is why the car was not even taken to the prestigious Le Bourget-2017 air show, and the only Russian flying exhibit was the Sukhoi Superjet 100.

The further fate of the MS-21, by the way, is clearly visible on the example of the SSJ-100. Although short-haul passenger transportation, along with medium-haul ones, is one of the most demanded destinations, just over 140 Sukhoi Superjets have been produced over the years. And if in the case of the failure of the SSJ-100 one could say that "the first pancake is lumpy" (Russia has not created new passenger aircraft for many years), then the collapse of the commercial illusions of the MS-21 will be a very painful blow to the domestic aircraft industry.


What is the bottom line? The question of the existence of the MS-21 lies not so much in the plane of commercial benefits as in the plane of supporting Russia's status as an aircraft building power. The fate of the MC-21 depends on how much the government is willing to pay for this status. If desired, the new airliner can also be viewed as an "investment in the future." However, in the future that awaits us, there seems to be no place for the domestic civil aircraft industry.

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