Russia Grounds Its Newest Airliner Over Safety Concerns

Russia Grounds Its Newest Airliner Over Safety Concerns

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A Sukhoi Superjet 100 taking off at a Paris air show in June 2011. A regional carrier in Russia, IrAero, reported finding metal fatigue in a tail section of a new Sukhoi Superjet, the latest setback for the plane.

Credit
Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg News

MOSCOW — Russian aviation authorities have grounded the country’s fleet of its newest model of civilian airliner, the Sukhoi Superjet 100. Metal fatigue, a problem usually associated with older airplanes, was discovered in the tail section of a new Sukhoi plane, the Russian regulator Rosaviatsia said Friday.

The grounding was the latest setback for the Russian jet, which has already had a rough introduction.

The plane model is important as a test of whether Russia’s military aerospace prowess can translate into a successful civilian product. The manufacturer, Sukhoi, is best known as the maker of military jets now flying over Syria.

Most other Russian-made civilian jets, once a workhorse fleet of wide- and narrow-body planes, are flown only by regional airlines, and the aging planes are plagued by safety problems.

After the latest announcement, the Russian national airline Aeroflot, a major Sukhoi customer, on Saturday canceled 21 flights scheduled on domestic routes during the busy holiday season.

Rosaviatsia ordered the planes grounded pending inspections after a regional carrier, IrAero, reported finding metal fatigue in a component in the tail wings of one plane, according to Regnum, a nongovernmental Russian news agency.

The agency grounded the fleet to determine whether similar problems were appearing in other planes, most of which have been flying for only a few years.

Sukhoi said in a statement that it inspecting the entire fleet “to support airworthiness of the civilian Sukhoi planes.” The defect “of one element of the tail portion” could not cause a crash, but “all the same airlines must check this model of aircraft,” the company said.

Aeroflot said in a statement that flights on Sukhoi jets had been canceled for “technical reasons.”

Although Aeroflot is Russia’s national flag carrier, it has been a reluctant customer of Russia’s domestic airplane manufacturers. It has instead tried to solidify its reputation with customers at home and abroad by flying mostly Boeing and Airbus planes.

But amid Russia’s political tensions with the West, the company has come under political pressure to support domestic manufacturers. As of March, Aeroflot had 29 Sukhoi planes.

Aeroflot has also ordered 50 planes of a new midrange Russian model still under development, the Irkut MS-21, which is made by United Aircraft Corporation, also a Russian company.

Safety concerns with the Superjet, Russia’s first post-Soviet passenger plane, emerged soon after its introduction in 2008. Embarrassingly, dozens of employees at the Sukhoi plant in Siberia were discovered to have faked their university engineering diplomas.

Then, in 2012, a Superjet crashed into a mountain in Indonesia during a sales demonstration flight carrying 37 aviation executives and journalists, and eight crew members, killing all aboard. An investigation cited pilot error.

Aeroflot says the plane is now safe. While the grounding was a setback for the model, it also indicated vigilance by Russian aviation regulators. It came just days after European regulators certified a long-range version of the Sukhoi Superjet for flights in the European Union.

The plane is made in a joint venture with European aerospace suppliers, including Thales, a French avionics company, and Safran, an engine maker.

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