US sanctions against Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation (UAC) helped the MC-21 airliner project escape current bloodbath facing the aviation industry caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Had the MC-21 kept to its original schedule and commenced serial production by 2018 with deliveries to airline customers by 2019-20; it would have got caught up in aircraft order cancellations by airlines as the COVID-19 pandemic hit the travel industry hard from the beginning of 2020.
Supplies of MC-21 to Russian carrier Aeroflot were supposed to start by 2019 as part of a 175 aircraft order the MC-21-300 version had notched since 2016. Other airline confirmed customers are Sakha Republic based Yakutia Airlines and Kazakhstan’s Bek Air.
However, successive setbacks caused by the sanctions- denial of Pratt & Whitney PW1000G engines, avionics and control systems by Honeywell and Rockwell Collins besides composite material by Hexcel and Toray led the project to miss timelines for prototype testing and certification.
UAC has had to make some major alterations to its manufacturing plans- replacing the PW200 engine with the Aviadvigatel PD-14 engine.
In addition it sought to replace MC-21's avionics manufactured by Honeywell and Collins Aerospace, besides France's Thales with indigenous airborne avionics before 2023.
A tender was issued in 2018 to look for potential Russian manufacturers. The deadline for the development, tests, and certification of the avionics is targeted to be completed by the end of 2023. The progress of this project is not yet known.
After receiving six sets of composite wings, Hexcel and Toray stopped supply in September 2018 when the US imposed sanctions against Russian producers AeroKomposite and ONPP Tekhnologiya. AeroKompozite announced in June 2019 that it had completed the development of wings and other structures made from composites.
Airbus and Boeing woes:
Airbus order cancellations as on March 31, 2020 stood at 60 airplanes. “The impact of this pandemic is unprecedented...Our airline customers are heavily impacted by the COVID-19 crisis. We are actively adapting our production to their new situation and working on operational and financial mitigation measures to face reality,” said Airbus Chief Executive Officer Guillaume Faury.
Boeing, already in deep trouble due to the B737 Max grounding, faced another whammy as a result of COVID-19 caused cancellations. Leasing firm Avolon canceled orders for 75 737 MAXs worth $8 billion on April 3 adding to 150 total order cancellations for the 737.
Aviation industry experts are of the view that that airline traffic won’t return to 2019 levels until 2023 at the earliest.
Thanks to productions delays, UAC plans to roll out the first six serially-built MC-21 jets in 2021, 12 in 2022, before ramping up production to 25 units a year by 2023, Valery Okulov, Counsellor to UAC’s general director has been quoted as saying by rusaviainsider.com in December 2019.
This news is before COVID-19 pandemic set in and no further information has come from UAC regarding production schedule changes, if any. Nevertheless, the delays may have come as a blessing to UAC as having order cancellations once serial manufacture sets in can have disastrous financial consequences.
The MC-21 is touted as a direct competitor to the Airbus A320 and the Boeing 737. Boeing has suffered a considerable erosion of customer confidence following the 737-Max grounding which is evident from most new orders for the single aisle class of airliners going to Airbus during 2019.