The 400 Seat Passenger Plane With No Customers: The Il-96-400M

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Russian aircraft builder Ilyushin is readying a brand new plane for certification. The Il-96-400M is a widebody quadjet with space for up to 400 passengers onboard. Despite delays to the program, the jet is expected to take its first flight next year. The only problem is, nobody wants it.

Il 96 400m in assembly
Russia is building a new widebody plane. Photo: UAC

Russia is building a new quadjet

Two years ago, in early 2018, Russian planemaker Ilyushin revealed plans to build a new widebody aircraft based on the Il-96. It would be capable of accommodating some 400 passengers in a single-class configuration. In a break from the trend, it would use four Aviadvigatel PS-90A1 engines, each with a thrust of 38,360lb.

The overall design plays on that of the three-decades-old Il-96, a four-engine soviet beast that first flew in 1988. The Il-96 was designed with a range and passenger capacity to compete with the Boeing 767. But with little interest from Russian airlines and no way to compete on the international market, it never really achieved its potential. Only 30 units were ever built, most of which have been retired.

Il 96
The aircraft is based on the Il-96. Photo: Russian Embassy

AIN Online reports that, in 2017, the Kremlin injected 3.6 billion rubles into the Ilyushin Il-96-400M to kick start the project. But why, when airlines around the world can’t get rid of their quad jets fast enough, does the Russian planemaker think there is a market for another?

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il 96 400m
The Il-96-400M could well be the last commercial quadjet ever built. Photo: UAC

Specifications of the Il-96-400M

According to Ilyushin, the aircraft would operate with the following characteristics. We’ve put them next to those of the high capacity widebodies from Boeing and Airbus for comparison.

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 Il-96-400M777-9A350-1000
Length63.9 m76.7 m73.8 m
Wingspan60.1 m71.75 m64.7 m
MTOW270 tons351 tons319 tons
Range8,750 km13,500 km16,100 km
Passengers402 (single class)426 (2 class)410 (2 class)

The specs for the Il-96-400M really don’t make much sense when put next to those of the leading large capacity widebodies. It’s smaller, doesn’t fly as far, and doesn’t have the capacity of its competitors. Fuel economy is unpublished at this time, but with four powerplants to feed, it’s likely to perform poorly against the modern twinjets.

The suggested cabin layouts. Photo: UAC
Potential fit-outs for the finished aircraft. Photo: Russian Embassy

The first flight of the type was slated to take place at some point this year. The prototype is currently in final assembly at the Voronezh Aircraft Production Association (VASO) plant. However, Russian Aviation Insider reports that there is still much to be done before it can fly, and that the maiden flight is not expected before 2021.

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il 96 400m
The prototype is in final assembly. Photo: UAC

Why is it being built?

What the world really does not need right now is a poor efficiency, high capacity, Russian made quadjet. And yet, here it is, still undergoing assembly and on the road to certification. Why did Ilyushin decide to undertake this seemingly pointless project?

Aerotime Hub speculates that it could all be down to the Sino-Russian collaboration known as CRAIC. Formed in 2014, this partnership between Russia’s UAC and China’s COMAC wanted to jointly build a widebody aircraft to compete with Boeing and Airbus’ offerings. The CR929 came with high hopes of a new competitor in the long-haul market, but the project did not run smoothly.

Trouble with the CRAIC CR929
Delays to the CR929 have seen the Kremlin approach the Ilyushin project with renewed vigor. Photo: CRAIC

Russia didn’t want to share its expertise in aerospace, only to be left out of what it saw as the world’s most valuable market – China. Conversely, China didn’t want to invest in building the CR929, only to have to purchase it from Russia for its airlines.

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The squabbles led to delays, and the delays led to Russia pushing for a homegrown widebody alternative to plug the gap while the CR929 was dragging its heels. Ilyushin had been building an upgraded version of the Il-96-300 since 1997, but only as a freighter (the Il-96-400T), so the Kremlin decided it was best to invest in a passenger version of the aircraft to make do until the CR929 was finished.

Il-96-400M
Despite the Il-96-400M nearing its first flight, there are still no takers for the plane. Photo: UAC

It was a strange decision but predictably typical of Russia’s protectionist nature. The biggest disappointment so far is that there is no firm order for the plane. Aside from politically motivated noises of encouragement, there are no commercial airlines seriously interested in the aircraft. Which begs the question; even if it does take to the skies in 2021, who will ever fly it?

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