Fatal Superjet crash bad for Russia

2012-05-10 21:58

Moscow - All of the dozens aboard a Russian Sukhoi passenger jet flying on a sales promotion trip in Indonesia were killed when the plane slammed into a mountain, officials said on Thursday.

Rescuers who reached the remote site found bodies scattered near the wreckage of Russia's first post-Soviet civilian plane on the sheer face of Mount Salak, outside the city of Bogor, south of Jakarta.

"We entered the area... and found the dead bodies, but we cannot say about the number," said Gagah Prakoso, spokesperson for the national search and rescue agency.

"We haven't found any survivors."

The loss of the new Superjet 100 in Indonesia has dealt a heavy blow to the Russian aviation industry which hoped the first new civilian aircraft built in post-Soviet Russia would improve its image.

The Superjet 100, developed by legendary Russian plane maker Sukhoi, first took to the skies in 2008 and only started commercial flights last year in what officials hoped would mark a turnaround for the industry.

Russian aviation is still shadowed by stereotypes of oddly-shaped and disaster-prone Soviet planes but the Superjet was a brand new project aimed at presenting a gleaming new image of Russian technical prowess to the world.

In a horrific irony, the accident happened when the plane was performing a test flight in Jakarta for guests including foreign aviation executives while on its first tour of Asia to drum up more orders in the region.

"This tragic accident represents a further setback to the ambitious Russian civilian aerospace industry," Fitch Ratings said, adding that it expected orders would be negatively hit in the short term.

$1bn Superjet project

"Over the past decade the Russian state has invested heavily in the sector in the hope of re-establishing the country as a global technology and high-end manufacturing leader," it said.

The plane is intended to replace the Tupolev 134, the workhorse of Soviet short-haul aviation, which was involved in several disasters in the last decade and which many airlines such as Aeroflot have now withdrawn from service.

The Russian government has championed the $1bn Superjet project, wooing Italian industrial giant Finmeccanica to take a stake, and, whatever the cause of the incident, this support is likely to remain strong.

"What has happened will definitely slow down the programme and cause some reputational damage," the director of the Centre for Strategic Analysis and Technology Ruslan Pukhov told the Izvestia daily.

"But the programme is not going to come to a halt. And the Superjet is still going to be sold both on the domestic and foreign markets."

Just over half a dozen Superjets are currently flying commercially, mostly for Aeroflot on short-haul routes such as from Moscow to Minsk and from Moscow to Nizhny Novgorod but also for Armenian carrier Armavia.

It was Armavia that made the first commercial flight on a Superjet in 2011, shortly followed by Aeroflot, which now mainly operates Airbus and Boeing jets after ditching the Tupolev.

In a sign of its commitment to the Superjet, Aeroflot announced it was flying its fleet of planes on a normal schedule.

Influence orders

Sukhoi has signed in recent months a 12-jet sale to Italy's Blue Panorama Airlines and a 15-plane deal with Mexico's Interjet as well as an agreement to sell 12 planes to Indonesian regional carrier PT Sky Aviation.

Fitch said that while a total of 170 orders have been placed, the numbers purchased remain short of the programme break-even point. Further orders outside the [former Sovier Union] are vital to its success."

"We are still hoping that the incident in Jakarta will not have an influence on Superjet orders," an official from the Russian Industry and Trade Ministry told the Vedomosti daily.

The loss of the plane has sent shock waves through the Russian aviation industry, with press reports saying the pilot Alexander Yablontsev was hugely experienced and was considered Sukhoi's leading test pilot for the Superjet.

The Superjet project is a joint venture between Sukhoi and Italy's Alenia Aeronautica, which is part of Italy's partially state-owned Finmeccanica.

Alenia owns 25% plus one share of Sukhoi Civil Aircraft, the Sukhoi unit developing the jet, as well as 51% of Superjet International, which is handling sales of the aircraft.