The Sukhoi crash: Flights of Russian fancy

The crash of a new Russian passenger jet in Indonesia has left many dead and may spoil the country's dream of restarting its aviation industry.


    Thursday saw Russia's United Aircraft Corporation (UAC) lose 3.6 per cent on the Micex Moscow stock exchange. It has much to do with what happened 1700m up a craggy mountain thousands of miles away in Java. 

    The new Sukhoi Superjet 100 was supposed to be the saviour of the Russian aviation industry, and nobody knows yet why the pilots made the deadly decision to take the demonstration plane down to below 2000m near Indonesia's Mount Salak, where it crashed.

    But the faraway disaster likely left 50 passengers and crew dead and could spoil ambitions of newly reinstalled President Vladimir Putin, who is behind UAC's creation.

    It was supposed to be one of the so-called "national champions" that will bring Mother Russia back to the greatness it once knew. 

    UAC brought all of the country's state-owned aviation assets and manufacturers under one roof, with the idea of jumpstarting an economy that has not enjoyed any global share since the days of the USSR. 

    Last year, Putin's right-hand man Dmitry Medvedev admitted with regret in a Kremlin Security Council meeting on aviation that Russia built just seven civilian aircraft in 2010. 

    The Sukhoi Superjet 100 is a mid-haul passenger jet and is apparently good value for money at around $31 million per plane. A spokeswoman for the UAC, Olga Kayukova, said the aircraft was comfortable and spacious for its size for both passengers and crew. 

    Most of the important parts are made by reputable foreign companies. The French made the avionics, Americans the wheels and brakes. Boeing has consulted on the plane.

    Kayukova said there were no serious safety problems, though "some problems might not have been revealed through testing".

    Superjet 100 does not appear to have been an easy bird to hatch. In February, Novayagazeta published an article pointing to spiralling production costs, paid for with massive state infusions of cash.

    Many of the companies that have agreed to buy the aircraft are Russian airlines. Western airlines are noticeably absent from the order list. Alitalia pulled out of a $500 million deal for an order of Superjet aircraft and opted for Brazilian manufacturer Embraer because of delays in production. 

    Alexander Golts, an industry expert, believes that Putin's UAC is a "Soviet parody" that fails in today's global market economy. 

    "It's one of the biggest mistakes. In the Soviet Union there were a dozen military industrial ministries including the ministry of aviation. They all worked in a non-market situation. They were extremely ineffective," he said.

    "At the end of the day, we have a plane. But it is more or less clear this plane will have tremendous problems with purchasers abroad."

    Yet the Superjet 100 probably still has a future. If state-controlled UAC does follow the Soviet model, then just like in any classic planned economy, the project does not need to be commercially viable. It is the idea that counts. 



    How different voting systems work around the world

    How different voting systems work around the world

    Nearly two billion voters in 52 countries around the world will head to the polls this year to elect their leaders.

    How Moscow lost Riyadh in 1938

    How Moscow lost Riyadh in 1938

    Russian-Saudi relations could be very different today, if Stalin hadn't killed the Soviet ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

    Will you push the boundaries or play it safe?

    Will you push the boundaries or play it safe?

    Curate an art exhibition and survive Thailand's censorship crackdown in this interactive game.