Belgium’s VLM to Be First European Operator of Russian Superjet

Belgium’s VLM Airlines will become the first European operator of the Sukhoi Civil Aircraft Co. Superjet 100 next year after agreeing to use two of the planes for the resumption of scheduled flights at its base in Antwerp.

VLM, which aims to complete a management buyout from Germany’s Intro Aviation GmbH next week, will take two SSJ100s from Russian lessor Ilyushin Finance Co., with options for two more leased aircraft and purchase rights for a further 10.

After examining the baseline Superjet, VLM opted for the long-range version of the model which has a range of about 4,500 kilometers (2,800 miles) or four hours, allowing flights anywhere in Europe, Chief Executive Officer Arthur White said today. Three routes are planned and will be confirmed in coming weeks, White said, adding that he selected the Russian plane ahead of rival regional jets from Embraer SA and Bombardier Inc.

“The SSJ is wider and taller than the alternatives and while there’s always a cost component this is a plane with engines made in France, western avionics and an Italian interior,” White said in an interview. “We’re looking at the classic regional point-to-point model, so we’ll be steering clear of competition with state-owned or low-cost carriers.”

VLM, previously owned by Air France-KLM Group before it and sister-carrier CityJet were bought by Intro earlier this year, currently operates a fleet of 12 Fokker 50 turboprops which perform shorter flights of about an hour, the CEO said. The SSJ100 will be fitted with 12 business and 75 coach seats, making 87 in total, though plans are still evolving, he said.

London City

Under Intro, VLM had ceased scheduled services of its own, focusing instead on charter and wet-lease contracts, where one airline provides the aircraft, crew, maintenance and insurance, known as ACMI, for another. That business, which includes CityJet services such as Antwerp-London City, will be retained alongside the new Superjet service, White said.

Intro had planned to keep VLM and also looked at adding two 100-seat jets before the management-buyout plan emerged, he said. A purchase of aging Boeing Co. 737-500s, Fokker 70s or Fokker 100s was rejected as likely to provoke environmental opposition in Antwerp, where the airport is close to the city center and requires steep takeoffs from a short runway.

CityJet also has a Fokker 50 fleet that operates alongside 38 out-of-production BAE Systems Plc Avro jets, and Intro founder Hans-Rudolf Woehrl is likely to monitor VLM’s progress with the Superjet as it mulls its own fleet plans, White said.

Russia developed SSJ100 with the Alenia Aermacchi arm of Italy’s Finmeccanica spA. Powered by engines from a venture including Safran SA’s Snecma, about 40 aircraft are in service, mostly with Russian carriers led by OAO Aeroflot, and with Interjet of Mexico. Italy’s Blue Panorama had agreed to take at least four planes before entering bankruptcy protection.

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