• Plane includes massage tables, hydration monitors for athletes
  • The idea is to ‘create a home-team advantage in the air’

To pamper sports stars like Cristiano Ronaldo and Stephen Curry, Russia’s Sukhoi Civil Aircraft is kitting out its slow-selling regional jet with amenities like massage tables.

The SportJet, a customized version of Sukhoi’s Superjet 100, will feature seats that monitor heart rate, hydration and oxygen levels, and include a so-called recovery zone with diagnostic equipment as well as physical therapy and training areas. The in-flight media system, called “Be Ready to Win,” offers motivational programs, video analysis and theoretical training. 

The SportJet’s feature seats that monitor heart rate hydration and oxygen levels.
The SportJet’s feature seats that monitor heart rate hydration and oxygen levels.
Source: Sukhoi

“People who invest hundreds of millions in a sports team require the best of athletes,” Evgeny Andrachnikov, senior vice president of commerce at Sukhoi Civil Aircraft, told reporters at the plane’s debut this week at the Farnborough air show near London. The idea is to “create a home-team advantage in the air.”

The concept, scheduled for release in 2018, is an effort to jolt demand for the Superjet, which is estimated by analysts to cost about $30 million. After an early model crashed, the 95-seat regional plane, a joint venture between Sukhoi and Leonardo-Finmeccanica SpA, has struggled to gain much of a following, garnering about 180 orders and commitments since debuting five years ago. And now there’s even more competition with new offerings such as Bombardier Inc.’s C Series, Embraer SA’s E2 and the Mitsubishi MRJ.

‘Game Changer’

It’s questionable if the SportJet will be much help. Teams, which only need planes during the playing season, typically rely on charter services from the likes of Delta Air Lines Inc., which ferries 66 professional and college teams. Operating an aircraft requires expertise that athletic organizations typically don’t have.

Transporting athletes “isn’t exactly a problem that’s crying out for a solution,” said Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with Teal Group, a Fairfax, Virginia-based aerospace and defense consultancy. He estimated the potential market for the plane to be “in the dozens.”

Delta recently beefed up its sports charter unit, swapping eight Airbus Group SE A319 jets for 11 roomier Boeing Co. 757s-200s, originally built to seat 180 passengers. The old A319s had 54 leather business-class seats with as much as 5 feet (1.5 meters) between rows. That’s nearly twice the seat pitch in a typical coach cabin. The seats also swiveled so players could chat or play cards.

Still, Sukhoi is optimistic the SportJet can beat the older, bigger Boeing and Airbus aircraft that currently ferry athletes. The goal is for the high-end plane to account for a “sweet piece” of the more than 500 aircraft the Russian manufacturer hopes to sell over the next 15 years, said Andrachnikov, who declined to comment on the SportJet’s price.

“We outperform everyone,” Andrachnikov said. The Sukhoi plane is “simply lighter, more cost-effective. It’s a game changer for that task.”

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