Great legroom, bad vibrations: Flying the only Russian jet in the US

Sep 16, 2019

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The 45-minute Interjet flight from San Antonio to Monterrey is, on paper, nothing special. One of many air links between Texas and Mexico, it hops between SAT and MTY six days a week. But Interjet flight 4961 holds a rare distinction: It’s operated by the only Russian-made commercial airplane flying in the United States, the Sukhoi Superjet 100.

The SSJ, as it’s also known, is an odd airplane. It may look like contemporary Western jets, all sleek and elegant lines, but on board it feels like a different animal. It even sounds different. For aviation enthusiasts, it offers the charm of flying on a rare bird; and for everybody else, a spacious ride, albeit a much louder one than on Western jets.

If you’re an American who wants to experience the rare thrill of flying on a Russian airplane from home soil, you have only one option: going down to Texas, and booking yourself a seat on the Mexican low-cost airline’s services to Monterrey. That’s what I did on a recent Sunday, having arrived in San Antonio from Dallas – Fort Worth the day before on my personal farewell trip to the American Airlines MD-80. (Some flights on the SSJ also depart Houston Intercontinental for Monterrey.)

The airplane that showed up at the SAT gate looked like it meant business, with its front aspect reminiscent of an angry wasp. But business, or lack of it, is exactly the Superjet’s problem. It hasn’t sold well in its native Russia, or anywhere. The 22 that Interjet bought years ago are the largest fleet outside of Russia.

(Photo by Alberto Riva/TPG)

There’s no doubt that the SSJ is a pretty airplane. After all, it’s made by Sukhoi, the same company that builds the supremely good-looking family of fighter jets that forms the backbone of the Russian Air Force.

Two Sukhoi Su-30 Flanker of the Russian Air Force's aerobatic team at the Dubai Air Show in November 2017 (Photo by Alberto Riva/TPG)
Two Sukhoi Su-30 Flanker jets of the Russian Air Force’s aerobatic team at the Dubai Air Show in November 2017 (Photo by Alberto Riva/TPG)

The Superjet may be beautiful, but it’s also troubled: Interjet said in May that it was flying only five of its 22. A recent check of fleet-tracking site Planespotters showed that only six are currently in use. The others are grounded and used as sources of parts, because their Russian manufacturer isn’t really able to provide spares consistently. Without a global supply chain like Boeing or Airbus have, or a developed culture of customer service, Sukhoi faces a serious disadvantage compared to Western planemakers. The SSJ has also had a couple of fatal crashes, which haven’t helped sell more.

For Interjet, operating the SSJ is “like driving a Hummer in the Sierra Tarahumara,” wrote the Mexican newspaper El Financiero, referencing a rugged mountain range in the country’s west. “You’ll be fine for a while, but when the vehicle will need servicing, finding the parts and labor to fix it will be complicated and expensive.”

Last year, the airline even announced that it was getting rid of the Superjets altogether, before backtracking and saying that some would go on flying.

But on my flight, nothing went wrong.

No more than three dozen passengers were aboard the 93-seat airplane, whose airy cabin gave a sense of spaciousness.

Arranged in coach class only, in a 2-3 layout, the seats offered a really generous 34” pitch between them. These days, that’s unheard of in standard coach on US airlines. I was ecstatic at the amount of space. Score one for the rare Mexican airline / Russian plane combo, and we hadn’t even left the gate.    

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