Arrest in Italy Shines Light on Russian-Made Passenger Plane

MS-21 at the MAKS-2019 airshow (Photo: MAKS-2019 website)


The MS-21 passenger jet was publicly unveiled for the first time on Aug. 27 at the international MAKS-2019 air show in Zhukovskiy, Russia.

Three days later, an executive of the Russian state-owned company overseeing the development of the aircraft’s engines was detained in Naples, Italy, on U.S. charges of conspiring to steal trade secrets used in engine designs from a subsidiary of General Electric Co.  

The complaint against Alexander Korshunov, director of business development at United Engine Corporation, unsealed Sept. 5 in Ohio federal court alleges that he worked with Maurizio Bianchi, an Italian man also charged in the case, to hire employees of a GE subsidiary to do consulting work. Those employees revealed GE trade secrets during the course of their work and produced documents that claimed the patents obtained as a result of the work were held by United Engine Corporation and a Russian ministry, according to the complaint.

The PD-14 engine, which will power the MS-21 jet once it hits the market, is one of the designs mentioned in the complaint filed against Korshunov and Bianchi. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin addressed the arrest while at the Vladivostok Eastern Economic Forum, Bloomberg reported. “This is very bad practice that strains our state relations,” he was quoted as saying, adding that he believes that the incident is “connected to competition.” 

The MS-21, lauded as “the passenger plane of the 21st century,” by Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, is the country’s first mainline commercial aircraft in the post-Soviet era, and an aspiring competitor to aircraft produced by international giants Boeing Co. and Airbus SE. Russia’s only other passenger aircraft in operation, the Sukhoi Superjet 100, has a history of technical faults and two major crashes since it began flights in 2011.

The MS-21 is being developed by Irkut Corporation, a majority-owned subsidiary of United Aircraft Corporation, a conglomerate of Russia’s leading domestic and military aircraft manufacturers. United Aircraft Corporation is, in turn, majority-owned by Russia’s defense conglomerate Rostec, which is subject to U.S. financial restrictions on the Russian defense sector. 

The MS-21 was seen as “a realistic alternative to Airbus and Boeing for airlines concerned with U.S. sanctions,” according to Forbes, citing a report published in October 2018 by the consulting firm Air Insight. The report named Iran as a potential customer for the MS-21; the U.S. has issued warnings about doing business with the Iranian commercial aviation sector and has imposed sanctions on Iran Air, the nation’s flagship airline. Syrian Arab Airlines, Syria’s state-owned flag-carrier, was in talks in November 2018 to purchase about 20 MS-21 jets to boost its fleet. The airline has suffered due to U.S. and European sanctions. 

Serialized production of the MS-21, however, has stalled. Originally slated for the end of 2019, the rollout of the MS-21 was pushed back to 2021 when foreign suppliers for the MS-21’s composite wings left the project in fear of sanctions exposure. 

The U.S. Commerce Department placed Aerocomposite JSC, which constructs the wings for the MS-21, on its Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) Entity List in September 2018 “for supporting Russian military aerospace production activities,” a move that United Aircraft Corporation said relates to the tight competition in the aviation industry. 

United Aircraft Corporation has phased another foreign supplier out of MS-21 production. The first four MS-21 prototypes were outfitted with engines produced by East Hartford, Connecticut-based Pratt & Whitney. The engines will be replaced in the serial production of the aircraft, however, by PD-14 engines manufactured domestically by United Engine Corporation, another subsidiary of Rostec subject to U.S. financing restrictions.

The PD-14 is the first engine of its kind produced in Russia for civil aviation since the 1980s, and it has yet to undergo flight tests installed in the MS-21. It’s also awaiting certification by the European Aviation Safety Agency, a necessary step for the MS-21 to be marketable to foreign airlines.  

Though the main use for the PD-14 engines is the MS-21 jet, they could be deployed in other Russian planes in the future, according to Alexander Inozemtsev, head designer at UEC-Aviadvigatel, a majority-owned subsidiary of United Engine Corporation that also works on the engines. 

“As long as the PD-14 engine is more than 95% made of Russian components, aggregates and materials, it can be easily converted for military use,” Inozemtsev said in 2017. 

Plans for the PD engine family also extend beyond airplanes. Technology developed during the PD-14 project will go into industrial gas turbines and gas pumping units produced by United Engine Corporation such as the GPA-16, according to UEC-Aviadvigatel’s website. 

United Engine Corporation has been courting Iranian companies for at least the past two years at the annual Iran Oil Show in Tehran by displaying its gas turbines with “the greatest prospects on the Iranian market.” The company featured the GPA-16 at the Iran Oil Show in 2018 and the PD-14 engine made its own appearance in Iran during the 2016 Iran Air Show.

“[Iran’s aviation market] is very promising for us,” United Engine Corporation Director General Alexander Artykhov said at the time.  

Megi Hakobjanyan contributed to this report.


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