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An-148: operator’s verdict


The aviation industries of Russia and Ukraine seek a new place in the global market for passenger jetliners with the Antonov An-148 regional jet family

A handful of initial-production An-148-100s have been in revenue service with Ukraine’s Aerosvit for a year-and-a-half and with Russia’s State Transport Company “Rossiya” (GTK Rossiya) for over a year. This year will mark commencement of overseas deliveries. What can the international customers expect of the new Russo-Ukrainian product?

The An-148 had its maiden flight on 17 December 2004, when the UR-NTA got airborne. Revenue flights with Ukraine’s Aerosvit airline has been lasting for a year and a half, during which the UR-NTA airframe amassed fifth thousand flight hours and the UR-NTC, delivered in May 2010, amassed three thousand flight hours.

In the first year of revenue operations in Ukraine, the airplane demonstrated fuel burn of 1,760kg (3,880lb) per block hour, and block speed of 700kmh (378kt). Average flight duration was 1 hour 20 minutes. Initially, services were flown to six destinations within Ukraine, but later a dozen of international destinations were added.

In addition to three airframes assembled in Kiev (two in service, one undergoing tests), six more have been made in Russia at VASO plant. All of the six went to GTK Rossiya. By now this carrier based in St. Petersburg has amassed considerable operational experience and decided to make the An-148 backbone of its regional airliner fleet. In the fall of 2010, the airline signed follow-on order for nine additional An-148-100s. The decision was made upon a thorough analysis of the operational data and aircraft performance during operational trials. As of mid-February 2011, the number of passengers carried on Russian-made An-148s exceeded 223 thousands.

On 21 December 2010 GTK Rossiya celebrated a whole year since the new type commenced revenue passenger services. In its first calendar year, GTK Rossiya An-148s performed 1,875 scheduled flights in the central timetable to 26 destinations. The first Russian-built An-148, RA-61701, transported about nine hundred passengers on nine round services in the second half of December 2009. In the whole of 2010, during which the strength of the fleet gradually rose to six, the airline carried 192,240 passengers on nearly 2,000 city-pair flights. In January 2011, the carrier added over 22 thousand passengers, flying to twelve destinations in Russia and CIS.

All six An-148-100s in the GTK Rossiya’s fleet are on lease from Ilyushin Finance Co. (IFC). The lessor believes the current monthly utilization rate of 270 flight hours (FH) per a serviceable airframe can be increased up to 330 FH and even more.

A brand-new An-148 full flight simulator shall help achieve this. Its installation has been completed at the S7 Group training center in Moscow Domodedovo airport. The device was shipped in December last year, and began operations after final tuning in February 2011. The simulator corresponds to Flight Training Device Level D, and is the first such unit to have been designed and built in Russia. It comes with an advanced motion and visualization systems. The simulator was developed and built by Transas company based in St. Petersburg under Rouble 600million-plus contract with IFC signed at MAKS’2007.

The involvement of the S7 Group was a major victory for the An-148 team in 2010. IFC and S7 Group signed respective agreement at Farnborough’2010. The S7’s involvement in the project is expected to expand, to such an extent that the group may choose to acquire a quantity of such aircraft for the airline of its own.

The S7 Group has invested its own funds into outfitting its training center in Domodedovo with a comprehensive set of An-148 simulators for training of pilots, cabin and ground crews. One of those is a procedural training device for training of cabin crews. This device is provided by Moscow-based AKKO (this company supplies business and economy class seats, as well as interior items to An-148 manufacturers).

The whole set of the An-148 training devices is promised to be in place and fully operational in February 2011. This shall ease the current situation for GTK Rossiya, which is short of type-rated pilots (this was a cause for relatively low aircraft utilization rate at the beginning of the revenue passenger operations).

Speaking at an An-148 operators’ conference, GTK Rossiya general director Sergei Belov thus spoke about his fleet renewal strategy: “the aircraft we buy must pay back our investment in revenue operations, they must justify our expenses”. The airline rejected factory standard model and instead ordered a customized version with dozens of changes to the production specimen, including avionics set (a US-made weather radar and collision-avoidance system) and interior (allows quick-conversion from 64-seat two-class layout to 75-seat tourist cabin). Customization took a year, and, as Belov put it, “we got what we wanted”.

The airline accepted RA-61701 with 150 deviations from the specification under promise these would later be eliminated. The number was down to 38 when RA-61703 was delivering three months later. Most of the deviations and shortcomings were caused by the system crisis in the Russian aviation industry, but GTK Rossiya believed in the ability of the manufacturer to overcome those. “We know VASO as a first class production site from our Ilyushin Il-86 experience”, Sergei Belov explained.

Practical interaction between Antonov, VASO, IFC and GTK Rossiya has allowed effective rectification of the An-148 teething problems. Working together with other Russian and Ukrainian enterprises, they introduced about 60 improvements and modifications into the original design. These improvements were implemented on the RA-61701 when this airframe was undergoing maintenance and repair at VASO in the second half of 2010. In December the RA-61702 visited the factory to undergo similar work.

The improvement work VASO carries out on first production airframes includes maintenance bulletins and changes to avionics to enable ICAO Cat.IIIa landings, to which Antonov certified its airplane in early 2010. The recent maintenance bulletin helps eliminate problems GTK Rossiya experienced in the unusually cold weather of December 2009, when the ambient temperature kept well below -20 degree Celsius, causing freezing of water pipes in the rear fuselage.

From its side, Antonov acknowledges teething problems with the new aircraft, but points out the An-148 comes equipped with a very modern Onboard technical servicing system (OTSS) for better fault tracing level. The developer insists that troubleshooting is naturally faster using OTSS. Antonov further says that the Aerosvit and GTK Rossiya raised 35 technical issues. They have been answered by the Antonov designers and engineers through issuance of technical solutions and bulletins. Besides, the company provided training servicing for airlines customers, and improved their quality upon airlines’ recommendations. Over 200 airline employees have undergone training in the An-148 at Antonov bases.

IFC general director Alexander Roubtsov puts the matter his way: “We are fairly close to the target with the recently made aircraft which have most of the earlier discovered design and manufacturing flaws rectified. We continue working hand in hand with the developer and manufacturer and GTK Rossiya in order to make the An-148 a mature product able to compete successfully in the global market”.

The An-148 brings about a major departure from the Soviet-style scheduled maintenance to pro-Western “on-condition” approach to keeping passenger jets airworthy. The MRO program being implemented by GTK Rossiya is based on the airline’s experience of operating Airbus A320 and Boeing 737 aircraft families, as well as the 767-300ER. The intervals in this MRO program are broadly similar to that for the Airbus narrow bodies (for instance, A-check is performed after 750 FH). To help keeping the An-148 in operable condition, VASO keeps eleven employees at Pulkovo airport of St. Petersburg, and engine maker Motor-Sich two.

Work continues on improving maintenance procedures, so as to reduce number of man-hours required by the MRO program, and also to extend Manufacturer’s Minimum Equipment List (MMEL). Antonov admits that the An-148 requires more labor than the latest Boeing designs, but the gap is narrowing as the newer jet amasses real-life data on the airplane’s operations in commercial service.

The lion’s share of passengers carried on Russian-made An-148s were carried between St. Petersburg and Moscow: this route was selected as most convenient from viewpoint of fixing would-be malfunctions discovered in flight, flight preparations or post-flight checks. But this put the An-148 into head-on competition with larger jets on the same route. Six other airlines fly between the two cities using Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 family jets. GTK Rossiya itself operates Airbus A319/320 and Boeing 737-500 on the same route, making a total of 15 daily return flights between the two cities in winter time. This makes it easy to compare the performance of different aircraft. Having analyzed first three month of winter operations, GTK Rossiya found the An-148 to be a more effective money-making machine. “The An-148 offers lower operating costs than the 737-500 per flight basis”, Sergei Belov said.

According to his founding, the costs for a round trip appeared to be 23% less. Although the 737-500 is somewhat larger, its excessive capacity was only occasionally helpful, whereas the An-148 flew with average seat loading factor at 75%. On longer routes, such as that connecting St. Petersburg and Samara, the An-148’s direct trip costs were 46% less than the Boeing’s. This makes Belov able to assert: “The An-148 is not only in demand today, it is essential to increasing frequencies on our route network”.

The other important observation the airline made was that the An-148 is most efficient on flight legs exceeding 1,200km (650nm). The wide seats, similar to those on commercial airliners, high ceiling and large hand baggage bins provide comfort conditions for the travelers, at the level comparable to Airbus narrow bodies. This makes it reasonable to place the new jet on services to various remote provincial cities inside the country (taking account of the vast Russian lands) and also to small airports in the Western Europe where the traffic is not big enough to justify use of the narrow bodies.

GTK Rossiya general director draws a conclusion: “For us there is no question of whether the aircraft is good or bad: the An-148 is very much a good aircraft. It has proved worthy of airline service. At the same time, as any brand-new type, it has teething problems that need to be cured by concerted actions of the airlines, industry, financiers and government bodies”.

The airline says it wants to decrease downtime and maintenance costs, which is possible through streamlining An-148 production at VASO, and raising the strength of the fleet from six to fifteen units. Operational revenue can be enlarged through an increase in frequencies and use of the aircraft with the right capacity on GTK Rossiya’s network of routes.

As a further sign of confidence in the An-148, GTK Rossiya general director has applied to the Russian government with a letter in which he asks for additional state support to the program. In this letter he Sergei Belov writes that this aircraft can help the airline and the manufacturer regain their positions in the competitive environment of the aviation market.

Alexander Neradko, head of Russia’s Federal Air Transportation Agency (acronym FSVT, effectively Russian civil aviation authority), believes in good prospects for the new Antonov. He says: “The An-148 may become the most popular jet in service with the airlines operating in the territory of the Russian Federation. This aircraft is the one we have been longing to see in revenue service. It meets the expectations of Russian airlines to a robust regional jet able to operate from most of the Russian provincial airports. Initial operations confirmed most of our expectations, but also highlighted some teething problems with the type. I am sure we can overcome those by concerted actions of all parties interested in the success of the program”.

A number of Russian carriers have signed for the An-148 or expressed an interest in it. A word of encouragement to the An-148 team came from Aeroflot general director Vitaly Saveliev. He said the Russian flag carrier considers placing orders for fifteen An-148s along with purchases of other indigenous designs, the MS-21, An-140 and SSJ100, from local manufacturers. Aeroflot’s interest in the An-148 comes from the fact that GTK Rossiya is one of the members in Aeroflot Group. Another member, Vladivostok Avia, has already ordered two An-148s via IFC, for delivery in 2011-2012.

IFC intends to stay the main supplier of newly made An-148s coming off the assembly lines at the aviation plants in Voronezh and Kiev. The lessor says this year it will place with its airline customers five more Russian-made An-148-100s and two Ukrainian-made An-148-200s (An-158s). In February 2011 Alexander Roubtsov said IFC will acquire 80 An-148s in the next six years, and place them with airlines.

IFC general director believes the technical problems discovered during initial revenue operations are resolvable and can be dealt with in the conditions of unprecedented publicity for the Russian aerospace sector. “We never hide anything. The An-148 is a very open project to anyone interested. In fact, it is the most widely discussed civil aeronautical project of all ever attempted by the local manufacturers. If you try to obtain real figures on other airplanes in the marketplace, you will never get more detailed and trustworthy information than that available on the An-148. That’s because we and our partners are confident in the success of this program. We feel comfortable when sharing data on An-148 operations with the community”.

Today, the An-148 is arguably the newest and most efficient regional jet available elsewhere, designed from scratch on computer screen using modern CAD/CAM/CAE technologies. Antonov and its partners believe they can provide competition to Embraer and Bombardier.

According to China’s COMAC market forecast 2010-2019, the global market for regional jets is worth US dollar 130billion, and will see 807 deliveries of aircraft in the 70-seat class and 2,445 more in the 90-seat class. Russia’s largest aircraft lessor has a prognosis of its own. In next twenty years Ilyushin Finance Co. predicts 350-400 sales for the An-148 and 200-250 more for the An-148-200 (An-158), a stretched version seating 99 passengers compared to 75 for the baseline model.

Source: Vladimir Karnozov - RuAviation.com