Published in July 2016 issue

The Sukhoi Superjet is a nice mix of Russian with a hint of Italian. Add to that mix the Mexican spice and the result will surely be quite unique. Join us on a quick flight from Miami to Cancun on the world’s most spacious low-cost carrier, and its newest Superjet.

By Chris Sloan

For many aviation enthusiasts like me, Russian-built aircraft have long held a certain fascination. It wasn’t that long ago that, from my home base in Miami, Aeroflot’s IL-62s could be seen and heard shrieking across South Florida skies. Nearby Opalocka Airport is home to several Russian freighters, namely AN-12s. And a handful of AN-2s were flown here to selfimposed exile by Pilots fleeing from Cuba.

My indoctrination into Russian airliners came in the form of the fascinatingly curious Russian/Italian regional aircraft that is known by various names: Sukhoi Superjet, SSJ-100, SuperJet International 100/95, Sukhoi 100, or any combination thereof. It has sometimes derisively been nicknamed the ‘Embraerski’, ‘CSerieski’, or ‘ERJski’, though the aircraft is hardly a facsimile of those. It is truly its own unique beast—an aircraft designed to appeal equally to Eastern and Western operators and, more specifically, to globally compete directly with the Embraer and Bombardier incumbents as well as new players like Mitsubishi’s MRJ.

The SSJ-100, which was created in partnership with a western company—Italy’s Alenia Aermacchi—is truly the first Russian aircraft built to be seriously marketed to airlines in the West. Sukhoi, a company known more for military than civil aircraft, equipped it with a broad complement of Western technology and design from companies such as B/E Aerospace, Honeywell, Thales, and Goodrich, with even Boeing serving as a consultant in the early days.

Fortunately, one of the four flights the SSJ-100 operates on a regular basis into the United States is to my home airport, Miami (MIA)—the others being Houston (IAH), Dallas/Ft. Worth (DFW) and San Antonio (SAT). With minimal muss or fuss, I could make a day trip out of it—flying from Miami to Cancun (CUN) and back, and throwing in a little beach and exploration time to boot. As a bonus, I could experience another airline, the well regarded Mexican low-cost carrier Interjet (4O).

Interjet is currently the sole Western carrier operating the SSJ- 100, though Dublin-based CityJet (WX) is due to commence this year. I had heard many good things about Interjet, which is flatteringly known as the jetBlue (B6) of Mexico, so I was eager to put the confluence of all these contrails to the test.

MY SUPERJET EXPERIENCE: INTERJET 4967 FROM MIAMI TO CANCUN

With a light pre-Christmas workload back at the office, I decided, on the spur of the moment, to sample Interjet and the SSJ-100. Despite fearing limited availability during the holiday season on the sole daily Miami-Cancun service, I was pleasantly surprised to find plenty of seats available. The website was user-friendly and simple to navigate, so no problem there. I paid $454 (including taxes) with a seven-day notice. This was a bit more expensive than American Airlines (AA), the other player on the route. However, befitting the so-called jetBlue of Mexico, Interjet includes amenities in its single base fare, regardless of status: two pieces of luggage weighing up to 55lb (24.95kg) apiece, 34 inches (86.36 cm) of legroom at every seat, and some other niceties we will mention later.

It’s worth mentioning that the passenger mix on the route is pretty much Mexican VFR (visiting friends and relatives), and connecting passengers from other carriers. The airline codeshares with AA in some markets, although not on this particular route. Interjet is a small player at MIA, having begun service in 2013, but its five daily destinations, including Mexico City (MEX), compete head-to-head with AA and Aeromexico (AM), running at high load factors.

I was not checking in any luggage, but did wish to pre-board to take pictures of the cabin (and had made prior arrangements to photograph the ramp as well.) The mobile app and the lack of kiosks were irrelevant to me as I had to produce my Passport anyway. I therefore arrived at the deserted check-in counter at 07:00 for my 08:15 departure.


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CHECK-IN & BOARDING

Was I late? Had the flight been canceled? As it turned out, most of the passengers had already checked in and were at the gate, as most had hold luggage and, this being an international flight, had been asked to arrive up to two hours early.

Check-in was effortless, aided by emails leading up to the day of departure and reminding me of my itinerary. And—surprise!—a reminder that, should I need to change my flight, it would only cost me $25; talk about customer friendly!

I arrived at the gate at Concourse F, which instantly bought back memories of when this was the domain of Pan Am (PA) and then of United Airlines’ (UA) Latin American hub operations. After a quick photo session on the ramp and the cabin, I participated in the very orderly boarding process. With a nooverselling policy, free checked luggage, and only 80 of the 93 seats occupied, boarding was smooth and accomplished in five zones from front to back.

My initial impressions were very favorable. The Italian-designed Pininfarina cabin oozed elegance; its ‘Interjet by Pininfarina branding’, gray leather seating, spacious overhead bins, soft lighting, wide cabin (the same 10ft width of an MD-80 or CSeries), and 6ft tall ceiling certainly set the stage for a nice, albeit short, flight. Had you blinked, you could have been be forgiven for thinking you were on a jetBlue aircraft, though the 3-2 seating and drop-down inflight entertainment (IFE) units in lieu of setback LiveTV were a gente reminder that you were not.

Our two Flight Attendants (FA) provided gracious smiles and assistance to those needing help with securing their luggage. I settled into my padded, not slimline, 1A seat on the bulkhead, which has the same 34-inch (86.36cm) legroom and 18.3-inch (46.5cm) width found throughout the cabin. The SSJ can seat up to 108 passengers with a 30-inch (76.2cm) high-density pitch seat configuration. Interjet, in its passenger-friendly version, opts to go with just 98 seats.

I noticed that the seats, arm rests, and cabin panels were a bit worn, which was surprising, considering that this aircraft—the first delivered to the airline—had only been in service for a Little over two years. I didn’t notice much in the way of grime and the plane was pretty clean, so one has to wonder whether the materials are up to par.

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DEPARTURE

With all the passengers on board, we pushed back 15 minutes ahead of schedule. The drop-down IFE screens displayed a well-produced bilingual safety video, but then switched to the moving map display. I was a bit disappointed that Interjet’s well-known cockpit camera wasn’t activated on this aircraft.

Four minutes ahead of schedule, we lined up on the runway. As the throttles spooled up the PowerJet SaM 146s somewhere near their maximum 16,000lb take-off thrust, a sudden reminder came that this was a Russian aircraft: The SSJ’s noise level was noticeably higher tan that found on other current-generation aircraft. Despite this, I found the cacophony seductive, and a plus to this experience. In a brief 23 seconds,  we were airborne. Soon, we began a gradual turn to the Southeast towards the Florida Keys. As we climbed, the sound of the engines began to attenuate until, 23 minutes later, we reached our 34,000ft cruise level at a speed of 510mph (443kt).

Before the service began, I had a chance to check-out the lavatories. Interjet boasts a ‘Women Only’ lavatory in every aircraft, including the SSJs. In this aircraft, there are two lavatories: one located at the front and one at the back, which is women only. I suppose this is great if you are a woman, but men have to walk all the way up to the front of the cabin every time.

The drawbacks showed during service, when longer lines formed at the front. While I applaud the innovation and marketing creativity, I am not sure this is as passenger-friendly in practice as it sounds in theory.

Inflight entertainment was one area in which Interjet fell short of expectations, even on such a short flight. The drop-down screens displayed rather indifferent programming, punctuated by the occasional moving map. We were shown a Mexican version of a show called Just for Laughs, which didn’t really require any understanding of Spanish. Annoyingly, the audio was pumped obtrusively throughout the entire cabin. The SSJ doesn’t offer jacks for headphones, so the only way to escape from the sound was to wear your own.

The inflight magazine, although entirely in Spanish, offered high quality content, photography, and paper stock. Still, the glorious scenery of the Florida Keys, the Straits of Florida, Cuba, and the Yucatan Peninsula viewable through the amply sized windows of the SSJ was my entertainment for most of the flight.

A brief, but welcome, catering service arrived 40 minutes into the flight. Although the granola bars or potato chips were appreciated, what really surprised was the offer of free spirits, even on a morning flight. For those so inclined, a full liquor and beer bar service (no wine) was offered free of charge. The Flight Attendants were generous, handing over full bottles of soft drinks without having to ask.

After short cruise time, we began our descent into Cancun and were afforded a low-altitude tour of the city, the surrounding jungle, the spectacular underwater corals, and the beautiful Isla Mujeres. We touched down at 09:32 local time, after a smooth and uneventful 1 hour and 19 minutes airborne.

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Just after deplaning via airstairs at Cancun’s Terminal 2, my phone alert buzzed, indicating a newly received email. It was, not surprisingly, a thank you note from Interjet and a request for a short survey. Now that was a first—that fast!

In summary, Interjet provides an upgraded single-class Economy service not that far removed in concept from that offered by jetBlue during the last decade. Missing are the LiveTV, in-flight connectivity, a broader catering offering, and a premium Mint cabin product. In a number of subtle features, Interjet reveals surprises and amenities that its model does not. The SSJ-100 platform itself, apart from being a bit loud, was very smooth; it felt similar to the Embraer E-Jets, but with design touches that surprised and delighted. None of the quirkiness associated with classic or even more modern Russian aircraft was present.

Both Interjet and the Superjet deserve high marks. Only 10 years old, Interjet has become a major player in Mexico and Central America with its distinguishing cabin and operational service. The plucky Mexican airline and well-conceived Russian aircraft seem to have entered into a very positive marriage.

As the SSJ approaches its 100th delivery, Interjet’s indisputable success with the Superjet could spur on more orders from the West—and the East as well. But industry analyst Robert W. Mann Jr. warns that the path will not be easy. “Given the small narrow-body competition and their global support structure, any new program will find it difficult to compete, whether that is the SSJ, MRJ, even the CSeries,” he says.

Nevertheless, competitors in the crowded 90-110 seat market segment should not write off this unlikely but potent Russian- Italian competitor.