Launching a competitor to the well-established Boeing and Airbus narrowbodies was never going to be easy, but Russia was game for the challenge. The MC-21 is set to be a competent challenger to the duopoly, although it has some work to do to convince international airlines to invest. But for the passengers themselves, the end result could be a more comfortable experience.
Another $800 million for the MC-21
The Russian-made narrowbody competitor, the MC-21, has had some good news today. According to a report at AeroTELEGRAPH, the state is investing another 61 billion rubles (around $800 million) in the project, as announced by Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin. The money will be used for the development of the project, as well as import substitution of components to really Russify the aircraft.
Simple Flying spoke to Victor Kladov, Director for International Cooperation and Regional Policy of the State Corporation Rostec, about the MC-21 on the sidelines of the Dubai Airshow. He noted that the narrowbody sits well against its competitors, saying,
“We are in the same category as the Boeing 737 or Airbus A320. It’s a middle-range narrowbody jet with a capacity of up to 211 passengers. It can seat from 180 to 211.”
That’s some stiff competition that the MC-21 is up against, with Boeing’s flagship narrowbody holding the crown for the top-selling modern passenger plane. The DC-3 sold more absolute units, but most were not commercial planes.
The Boeing 737 has sold so many units that it is now in the Guinness Book of World Records. The 10,000th 737 rolled off the production line back in March 2018. But the Airbus A320 is not far behind. Despite coming to market 20 years later than the 737, MSN 10,000 was delivered in October 2020.
In order to take on these global giants, even to gain a small bit of market share outside of Russia, the MC-21 needs to offer something a little bit more. Comparing it to the 737 MAX 8 and the A320neo – the two aircraft it is most close to in capacity – the range of the MC-21 will fall short. So, where can it win over the airlines?
Improved passenger experience?
While a trip on a narrowbody is generally not very long or very challenging, we do like to enjoy a bit of comfort onboard. The perennial problem of feeling like a sardine in a can is something seat manufacturers and cabin designers often try to fix, with mixed results. Although there’s nothing Irkut can do about the density chosen by the MC-21 operators, it has built in some extra space over its competition. Kladov explained,
“What is good is it’s higher. The cabin is higher and wider than the Airbus cabin, which should give better comfort for passengers both in business class and economy class. There’s also more space for luggage. So it’s really a very good aircraft.”
The cabin width of the MC-21 clocks in at 4.06 m, making it the widest narrowbody in the world. In comparison, the A320neo has a width of 3.7 m, and the 737 MAX 8 is just 3.53 m wide. These centimeters of extra width might not seem like they’d make a difference, but they do.
Specifically, the MC-21 has the space to allow a passenger to pass the trolley in the aisle without the cabin crew needing to move it at all. This will make for easier trips to the bathroom, even when meal service is taking place.
That extra width allows for larger overhead bins too, offering 20 – 25% more space than other aircraft in its class. Six cabin bags per double row can be stored on each side, allowing every passenger to bring one wheeled suitcase onboard if they wish.
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Will it sell outside of Russia?
Aside from the immediate benefit of the wider cabin, it will also offer increased flexibility to airlines allowing for multi-class configurations if required. It also has an increased cargo capacity below the deck. With a price tag promising to be around 10% lower than the A320neo and almost 20% lower than the MAX, heads could be turned.
Nevertheless, the MC-21 still has an uphill battle to convince non-Russian airlines to take the plunge. For some, the widely reported problems with keeping the smaller SSJ-100 supplied with parts is still a warning beacon, while others will require this new plane to prove itself before it’s even considered.
But Rostec is building in strategies to cope with these issues, such as offering the Pratt & Whitney engines for exported models. Still, it will probably take some confidence-building before the plane really breaks into the international market.