Boeing B737 and Airbus A320Neo come face-to-face with a tough challenger

Currently, the B737 and A320Neo are the kings of the narrow-body workhorse market. This is the market that any competitor would want to target

Boeing B737 and Airbus A320Neo come face-to-face with a tough challenger
Could the Russian MC-21 be the answer to Airbus and Boeing's dominance? Image courtesy: Irkut

The Airbus A320Neo and Boeing B737 may be two of the most sought-after narrow-body planes in the world, but there is a challenger on the horizon. 

Russia flew a new passenger plane powered by indigenous engines for the first time since the Soviet era on December 15, 2020, according to Reuters. The medium-range MC-21 aircraft is expected to lead the revival of the Russian civil aviation industry and be Russia's answer to the Airbus A320Neo and the Boeing B737. 

The MC-21-310 took off from a Siberian airfield and flew on Russian PD-14 turbofan engines. The aircraft is made by the Irkut Corporation, which is part of the United Aircraft Corporation (UAC).

According to a Business Insider report, the UAC was set up in 2006 to raise the global competitiveness of the Russian aviation industry. Apart from Irkut, the UAC also includes the stars of Russian aviation -- MiG, Sukhoi, Ilyushin, Tupolev and Yakolev. 

The MC-21 could be the harbinger of a revival in the Russian civil aviation industry. Image courtesy: Irkut

The plane first flew in May 2017, but with US-made engines. The PD-14 engines have been manufactured by United Engine Corporation (UEC). Both the UAC and UEC are majority-owned by the Russian state aerospace and defence conglomerate Rostec. Irkut points out that the PD-14 is the first fully Russian turbofan engine since the 1990s. 

The engine has a takeoff thrust of 30,800 pounds or around 14 tonnes, a dry mass is 2,870 kg and a fan diameter of 1.9 m. "Due to innovative technologies and materials, specific fuel consumption is 10-15% lower than of the previous generation engines," Irkut says. 

Also read -- Boeing 777X: World's largest plane that beats competition hands down

The MC-21-300/310 can seat 163-211 passengers and has a maximum two-class configuration range of 6,000 km. Its maximum takeoff weight is 79,250 kg, maximum landing weight is 69,100, and it can carry a maximum payload of 22,600 kg and maximum fuel of 20,400 kg. 

The aircraft's shortened version is called the MC-21-200. The MC-21-200 can accommodate 132-165 passengers and has a maximum two-class configuration range of 6,400 km. Its maximum takeoff weight is 72,560 kg and maximum landing weight is 63,100. The MC-21-200 can carry a maximum payload of 18,900 kg. It can carry the same amount of maximum fuel as the MC-21-300/310.   

While the MC-21-300/310 is 42.2 m long, the MC-21-200 variant is 36.8 m in length. The wingspan and height of both variants are the same: 35.9 m and 11.5 m respectively. 

India's largest domestic carrier IndiGo's Airbus A320Neo. Image courtesy: Airbus

The plane is billed as having a cabin wider than its competitors. The fuselage width of both the variants is 4.06 m and the maximum passenger cabin width is 3.81 m. Irkut says that the MC-21 layout has been designed to meet the needs of both legacy and low-cost carriers. The MC-21-300 has 18 inch wide seats and a 22.5 inch wide aisle in the economy class, which would allow free passage of passengers and trolley service over the aisle.  

The MC-21-300 has a maximum speed of around 950 kmph. 

"MC-21-300/310 aircraft high-performance characteristics are achieved due to advanced aerodynamics, latest-generation engines and systems. Improved aerodynamic performance is ensured by the extended wings made of polymer composites," Irkut says. 

Also read -- Boeing's B737 Max: Tragic hero for some, untouchable for others

Among the other advantages of the MC-21, according to the manufacturer, are wide-aisle and pivot-type overhead stowage bins that allow for faster and convenient boarding and deplaning. The design of the passenger cabins and lavatories is also said to help in faster cleaning to prepare the aircraft for the next flight. It is said to reduce airport turnaround time by 20%, thereby affording airlines more flight hours and help them compensate for flight delays. 

Let us now see how the MC-21 fares against the competition. 

The highly successful Airbus A320Neo has a range of 6,300 km and can seat 150-180 passengers in a two-class configuration, and has a maximum seating capacity of 194. It has a length of 37.57 m, a height of 11.76 m and a wingspan of 35.8 m. Its maximum takeoff weight is 79,000 kg and maximum landing weight is 67,400 kg. The fuselage width of the A320Neo is 3.95 m and maximum cabin width is 3.7 m. It has a cruise speed of 1,013 kmph, according to Simpleflying.  

What about the Boeing B737? The very popular but controversial B737 Max has a passenger capacity of 138-204 in a two-class configuration, with maximum passenger capacity varying from 172 to 230. It has a range varying from 6,110 km (737 Max-10) to 7,130 km (737 Max-7).

Boeing B737 Max variants. Image courtesy: Boeing

The aircraft's length varies from 35.56 m (Max-7) to 43.8 m (Max-10). Its wingspan across all variants -- B737 Max-7, B737 Max-8, B737 Max-9 and B737 Max-10 -- is 35.9 m and the overall height is 12.3 m. The maximum takeoff weight of the B737 Max varies from 80,286 kg (Max-7) to 89,765 kg (Max-10). According to the Iceland Air website, both the Max-8 and Max-9 have cruise speeds of 839 kmph. 

Also read: IndiGo gets rid of A320 Neo ghost, GoAir planes continue to be scary

According to Boeing, the 737 Next Generation (NG), comprising 737-700, 737-800 and 737-900 planes, can seat 110 to 180 passengers in a two-class configuration, and 132 to 220 in a one-class configuration. The 737NG has a length of 31.24 m (737-600) to 42.1 m (737-900ER), a wingspan of 35.8 m and a height of 12.5 m (the 737-600 has a wingspan that is slightly lesser and a height that is slightly higher). The range of the B737NG varies from 5,780 km (B737-800) to 6,310 km (B737-700). 

The maximum takeoff weight of the B737 ranges from 65,990 kg (B737-600) to 85,130 kg (B737-900ER). The fuselage width across variants (737-600, 737-700, 737-800 and 737-900ER) is 3.7 m and cabin width is 3.53 m. The cruise speed of the B737NG planes is around 950 kmph, according to Boeing.     

Therefore, true to its claim, the MC-21's fuselage is wider than those of the A320Neo and B737 by 0.11 m and 0.3 m respectively. The Russian plane's range is roughly similar to that of the A320Neo and most of the Max variants. Its range is higher than the 737NG, but a lot lower than that of Max-7.   

The maximum takeoff weight of the MC-21-300/310 is almost the same as those of the A320Neo and B737-800, which are around 5 m and 3 m shorter. It is, however, about 3,000 kg lighter than the almost 3 m shorter B737 Max-8. The MC-21-300/310 is almost similar in length as the B737 Max-9, but its maximum takeoff weight is about 9,000 kg lighter. 

Simpleflying quotes Research and Markets to point out that the MC-21 is known to have superior seat-mile economics to the B737 Max-8 and A320Neo.

Irkut adds that carbon-dioxide emission of the MC-21 is more than 20% lesser than equivalent aircraft currently in service. Nitrogen-oxide emissions have been significantly cut too. 

Boeing 737 has been one of the most popular planes for airlines across the world. Image courtesy: Boeing

The USSR was a major manufacturer of passenger aircraft that were used widely by itself and by its allied countries. However, after the fall of the Soviet Union, countries shunned their Ilyushins and Tupolevs for Boeing and Airbus planes. The Kremlin has been striving to make Russia less and less dependent on Western imports since 2014 when the US and EU imposed sanctions as a response to Russia's military intervention in Ukraine, the Reuters pointed out. 

Serial production of the MC-21 was initially planned to start by 2018, according to Simpleflying. Although Russia had planned to start delivering the aircraft to customers from 2019, it was postponed, with US sanctions forcing manufacturers to replace composite materials in the wings with Russian-made equivalents, Reuters reported. The first deliveries of the plane are expected to happen only at the end of 2021. 

The aircraft would be available in two engine variants: one with US Pratt and Whitney PW1400G-JM engines and the other with the Russian PD-14 engines. 

There are orders for 175 of these planes, with Russian state carrier Aeroflot accounting for 50 of them. Red Wings Airlines, Utair, Avia Traffic Company, Ilyushin Finance Company and Air Kyrgyzstan are some of the other MC-21 customers.  

The B737 Max had been embroiled in controversy after two deadly crashes in a space of just over four months that killed 346 people. It led to a record 20-month grounding of the plane.

The grounding was lifted by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) last month and some airlines around the world have embraced the refurbished Max again, but the regulators in other countries like India and indeed flyers continue to be wary. The Max and Boeing's loss of face and the massive loss due to the grounding of the plane and Max users like India's SpiceJet demanding huge compensations are all reasons that may allow a competitor a look in.

According to The Indian Express, the Max constituted 80% of Boeing's backlog of orders. Boeing also had to cut the production of its wide-body 787 with long-haul demand dropping sharply in the wake of the pandemic and resultant travel bans, The Economic Times reported.

AFP reported in October that the planemaker would cut an additional 7,000 jobs, thereby lowering headcount by 30,000 over two years.

This belt-tightening was a result of the downturn induced by Covid-19, the Max grounding and airlines either cancelling orders or deferring deliveries. In the third quarter of 2020 (July to September), Boeing reported a loss of $449 million, compared with profits of $1.2 billion in the year-ago period, and its revenues shrunk by 29.2% to $14.1 billion.

The pandemic and the resultant drop in demand for planes have impacted Boeing's arch-rival Airbus too. It had planned a significant cut in the production of the A320 family narrow-body aircraft, a Simpleflying report in April said.

According to a CGTN report in July, revenues at the aerospace giant fell by 55% in the second quarter of 2020, compared with the year before.

The planemaker witnessed €1.9 billion ($2.2 billion) net losses in the first half of 2020. Airbus announced plans to further cut the production of the A350 wide-body, and in June said that it would slash 15,000 jobs over the next year. 

Apart from technological advantages, these woes of Boeing and Airbus give ample space for a competitor to claw in.

 It would be interesting to see if the MC-21 is able to move beyond Russia/ former Soviet republics/ eastern Europe and become a truly global bestseller like the B737 or A320Neo in the popular narrow-body workhorse market. This is essentially the market to target for any challenger looking to displace Boeing and Airbus off their perch. Currently, the B737 and A320Neo are the kings of this domain.