Great legroom, bad vibrations: Flying the only Russian jet in the US
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.
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.
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.
TPG's Brendan Dorsey, who's flown recently on an Interjet Airbus A320, agreed with me when I told him about my impression of the airline's legroom. "I was blown away," he said, "and it was great that you didn't have to pay extra for what would now be considered 'economy plus' by American legacy airlines."
I didn't enjoy as much the crew's decision to keep the air conditioning off until the engines were started and we began to taxi. The captain may just have decided to turn it off to save money, not a great idea on a sweltering August day in South Texas. And when the air finally came on, condensation water poured on me from a ceiling panel. My mind went to an internal report from Russian airline Aeroflot leaked to Russian media and listing the a/c among the plane's trouble spots.
More troublesome than some drops of water was the engine noise, definitely louder than on Western jets of the same generation. The pitch and tone were different too, more of a growl than the vacuum-like sound of today's American and European turbofans.
The SSJ's engines aren't 100 percent Russian — they are the product of a joint venture with French company Safran — but still suffer technical problems at a higher rate than their Western counterparts. And they cause far more vibrations. From my seat near the starboard engine, I could feel and hear every power change. This was no big deal on a 45-minute hop, but on a longer flight it would have been annoying.
The plane's woes may be partially responsible for Interjet's financial troubles as well. Still, on my flight I got a snack and soft drink, not a given for a short hop that had cost only $116, of which $68 were taxes and fees. And I was impressed by the inflight magazine, a well-designed affair featuring lots of stories on art, food, literature and music — even an article about a media visit to Facebook headquarters that was not a puff piece, quite the opposite in fact.
By the time we landed at MTY, my impression of the Superjet had crystallized. Just like other Russian planes I'd flown, it was a beautiful machine with a few quirks that made it feel not at all like a Western airplane.
A good place to experience the same feeling — looking at airplanes that feel familiar, but with just enough quirks to be different — is Cuba, where Russian planes that have been discarded even by Russia's own Aeroflot soldier on in the Tropics. TPG's executive editorial director Scott Mayerowitz found some of those jets at the Havana airport in June 2016, like a Tupolev 204 freighter: a near-perfect clone of the Boeing 757, but with enough visual (and aural, if you hear one take off) differences to look a bit uncanny to a trained eye.
The same applies to the Antonov 158, a Ukrainian-made twin jet that looks just like the British Avro RJ, but with two fewer engines. Flag-carrier airline Cubana later grounded its Antonov 158s for lack of spare parts and "technical issues," just like the Mexican Superjets.
In Monterrey, that tendency of ex-Soviet jets in the West to end up out of service was on full display. As we taxied to our gate we passed another Superjet, with its engines and landing gear wrapped against the elements for long-term storage: It was one of the grounded SSJs.
Too bad, I thought as I looked back at my ride, parked under a bright Mexican sun: The Superjet is really a beauty, but might not be long for this world.
Interjet is thinking of ditching it for more Airbuses. If you want the experience of flying on a Russian jet without actually having to go to Russia, or Cuba, you'll need to hurry up.
All photos by the author except where noted.