KOMSOMOLSK-ON-AMUR, Russia (Reuters) - Russia unveiled its first all-new airliner since the fall of the Soviet Union on Wednesday, hoping to curb dependence on oil and gas exports and restore pride in its teetering aviation industry.
Sukhoi’s Superjet 100 is designed to seat 78-98 passengers and is the fruit of almost a decade of efforts by Russia’s largest warplane maker to branch out into commercial passenger jet production targeted at Western airlines.
The jet was inaugurated at a slick ceremony in Russia’s Far East, where part of Sukhoi’s massive Komsomolsk plant has been converted from sleek Flanker fighter jet production to civilian use with a target of 5-6 airliners a month by 2010.
“The Superjet is more than a plane, it is a priority project,” First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov told an audience of foreign investors and Russian factory workers.
About 1,000 Russian and foreign visitors were flown into Komsomolsk for the event, straining the resources of a factory town once sealed off from the outside world as a nerve centre of Soviet submarine and fighter production.
Sprayed in Russia’s national colors, the 98-feet-long (30 meter) airliner was towed out into brilliant sunshine flanked by factory workers and fashion models.
President Vladimir Putin wants to revive Russian aviation, shattered by the collapse of the Soviet Union, as a way of touting the country’s growing industrial and technical might.
Russia aims to secure at least 10 percent of the world airliner market with new passenger jets and to take third place among aircraft-producing countries by 2015-2018.
The Superjet will replace Russia’s fast ageing Soviet-made fleet of Tupolev Tu-134 and Yakovlev Yak-42 planes on domestic routes with a longer range of 4,550 km (2800 miles).
But Sukhoi has also drawn up aggressive export targets together with Italian partner Alenia Aeronautica.
Having pre-sold 73 aircraft mainly to Russian airlines, it aims to lift the order book to 100 planes with a catalogue value of $2.8 billion by the end of this year.
Ultimately it aims to sell 1,000 planes with 700 of them going to global export markets and it hopes to get European and U.S. certification during the coming year.
That puts Sukhoi in direct competition with Brazil’s Embraer and Bombardier of Canada, which dominate the 70-100 seat aircraft market.
Ukraine’s Antonov has a small market share and China and Japan have joined the race to develop rival models.
“No company in the world can confine itself to the domestic producers. In the time of globalization this is the only possible attitude,” Ivanov told delegates at the Superjet launch.
The maiden flight is expected before the end of the year, Sukhoi said. It says the Superjet will have 10-15 percent lower operating costs than either Bombardier or Embraer models.
Sukhoi Chief Executive Mikhail Pogosyan denied plans to compete with Airbus and Boeing in the market for larger jets — something that would put Western suppliers on a collision course with their biggest customers Boeing and Airbus.
Boeing advised Sukhoi on the concept of the Superjet.
But in the long run, Russia has declared ambitions to sell $250 billion (124 billion pounds) of aircraft by 2025 and overtake even Soviet-era output records to compete with the U.S. and European giants.
Putin is merging civilian and military aircraft makers into a state-controlled umbrella company called United Aviation Corporation under Ivanov, widely seen as his possible successor.
Alenia has a 25-percent stake in Sukhoi’s civil division, and the engines were co-developed with Safran of France. France’s Thales supplied the avionics.
Sukhoi hopes the development dollars and civil technology of its outside suppliers will attract Western airlines who may otherwise be reticent about buying Russian. It is also under-cutting rivals with a price of $28 million per plane.
Analysts say risks to the project include the lack of an existing after-sales service, which Alenia aims to put right.
And while demand for big jets remains strong, the $8 billion regional jet market is flat and seen as one of the industry’s most volatile, according to U.S.-based consultancy Teal Group.