Air Transportation: Russian Wide Body Blues


April 30, 2009: In Russia, the Presidential Air Detachment recently received its fourth Il-96-300 wide body transport. These four aircraft act like the U.S. Air Force 1 aircraft, and fly Russians senior leaders around. What's remarkable about these four Il-96s is that they comprise about 14 percent of all Il-96s manufactured in the last twenty years.

The Il-96 is the long range version of Russias first wide body transport, the Il-86. This aircraft entered service in 1980, and 106 were built (and 33 remain in service). The Il-96 (a shortened version of the Il-86), was completing its development in the late 1980s, just as the Cold War (and the Soviet Union) was ending. That also ended the captive market (all the communist countries) that Russian aircraft manufacturers had. While modern Russian airliners are cheaper than Western ones (Il-96 goes for $100 million, about 30 percent less than comparable Western models.), they still have a reputation for shoddy construction and uneven performance. Even Russian airlines preferred Western airliners, even though they were more expensive.

The 250 ton Il-96 has four engines and can carry up to 262 (standard, or a max of 435) passengers 12,000 kilometers (across Russia, or either the Atlantic or Pacific oceans). This is about twice the range of the Il-86. The Il-96 was built to last about 20 years (20,000 landings and 60,000 flying hours). In contrast, the first wide body, the U.S. B-747, first appeared in 1972. This 333 ton aircraft could carry 452 passengers for 12,000 kilometers. Over 1,400 were built.

In Russia, the military and civil aviation manufacturers share many of the same suppliers. If one dies, the other will likely follow. The government supplies subsidies, but not nearly enough to prop them up as was the case in Soviet days. Thus the many efforts to sell more Il-96s. This included equipping some with Western engines and electronics. Nothing worked. While Boeing and AirBus aircraft were more expensive, they were more efficient and reliable, thus making them cheaper to operate. Russia could not afford to design and build more advanced models of airliners like the Il-96, as Western manufacturers did. Thus the Il-96 barely remains in production. Actually, all the Il-96 factory does these days is produce upgrades and modifications for the aircraft. With the delivery of the aircraft to the Presidential Air Detachment, there are no more orders to work on.


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