That a Russian finance house set up to promote the domestic leasing of home-grown types such as the Ilyushin Il-96 in the industry's darkest days should end up as one of the biggest customers of the Bombardier CSeries illustrates how much the country's aviation industry has changed. It also highlights the ambitions of Ilyushin Finance (IFC). The Moscow-based company is determined to become a major player in the global leasing business and could play a vital role in the revival of Russian aerospace.
Earlier this month, the firm - established in 1999 by the renowned design bureau and former banker and current chief executive Aleksandr Rubtsov - confirmed an order for 32 CS300 aircraft with options for 10 more. It followed a letter of intent signed at the MAKS air show in 2011. The larger variant of the CSeries will be one of three main types in IFC's new-look portfolio, sitting between the smaller Sukhoi Superjet and the Irkut MS-21 narrowbody. Deliveries of the Canadian aircraft will begin from the third quarter of 2015 at a rate of around 10 a year.
The aircraft Ilyushin finance hope will transform their fortunes
When we met Rubtsov in a Moscow restaurant shortly after his shareholders had inked the CSeries deal, he admitted that the decision to opt for the CSeries had been unpopular with elements of the Russian media, which had castigated IFC for its lack of "patriotism". However, Rubtsov - one of the few Russian aviation leaders to speak fluent English - is adamant that the CS300 is not only perfect for airlines seeking the most economical option on flights of up to 5,000km (3,106 miles), but that having a Bombardier aircraft at the core of the IFC fleet could actually boost the prospects of Russian types.
Airlines opting for the CSeries will find it easy to operate alongside the 170-seat and above MS-21, one of two Russian programmes IFC will add to its fleet later this decade, says Rubtsov. IFC has orders for 50 of the twinjet, its biggest commitment to date. Not only do the Bombardier type and the MS-21 share the same Pratt & Whitney geared-fan engine, they have similar Rockwell Collins avionics and share many other components. "They have 60% commonality," says Rubtsov, who has also secured a deal with Bombardier to provide aftermarket support to its MS-21 customers; one of the biggest challenges for Irkut will be to establish a maintenance and service infrastructure.
Rubtsov - who expects to take deliveries of his MS-21s from 2018 at a rate of about 10 a year - is confident of finding buyers for the single-aisle airliner in Russia and beyond. In fact, he predicts that seven in 10 of the aircraft will go to foreign operators. A total of 28 of the 50 MS-21s ordered will be powered by the PW1000G engine, with the "door open" for rival Russian engine maker Aviadvigatel to make a push for its PD-14 alternative for the remaining 22. However, Rubtsov says his compatriots would have to make "a proposal we could not refuse" for IFC to switch from the PW1000G. "The price and the performance will have to be very competitive," he adds.
The third prong of IFC's fleet strategy is the Superjet, produced by IFC's sister company within the United Aircraft group, Sukhoi. The leasing company expects to finalise a deal for 20 of the regional jets this week at the Paris air show, opening the door to deliveries at a rate of three or four aircraft a year from next year. Rubtsov expects to facilitate further expansion by two of the early customers of the Sukhoi twinjet - Indonesia's Sky Aviation and Lao Central Airlines of Laos - which have taken delivery of Superjets this year.
IFC is also considering other Russian and CIS types. It has already secured customers for 13 Antonov An-148s, and may order more of the Ukrainian regional jet. The latest version of the Tupolev Tu-204, the Tu-204SM, is also a possibility "if the price is right", says Rubtsov. IFC has already placed 24 examples of earlier variants of the aircraft. The future of the Aviadvigatel Ps-90A2-powered, medium-range airliner, which was certificated by the Russian authorities last month, is uncertain, however. The only airline to show a serious interest in the 194-passenger jet, Red Wings, had its fleet grounded over safety concerns earlier this year.
IFC's status as a part-subsidiary of United Aircraft also remains in flux. As the company expanded in the 2000s, tycoon Alexander Lebedev became a major investor, as did the Russian government. IFC's shareholding today is held 48% by United Aircraft and 21% by a Russian state development bank. Lebedev and Rubtsov own most of the remainder. A shake-up is being proposed, with United Aircraft exiting and Lebedev's 25% share being offered to investors. At that point, a rebranding that would see the legacy Ilyshin name being dropped may be considered, says Rubtsov.
A finance house set up to find homes for Russian types is now on the road to being a serious player in the global leasing market, with aspirations way beyond its domestic market. Rubtsov makes no bones about the fact that IFC's customers are "second-tier" airlines, but there are plenty of these growing fast to meet the demands of domestic markets. "We are pushing outside the CIS and have made inroads into Asia," says Rubtsov. "We are about to open a Berlin sales office to establish a presence in Europe. Our priority in the next few years in to truly internationalise ourselves."
A major presence at Paris this week, with a likely Superjet commitment to follow the CSeries announcement, will help bring Rubtsov's company to the attention of more airlines beyond IFC's traditional sphere of influence within Russia and the CIS.