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Is there room in the sky for a niche airliner?


With Airbus and Boeing competing head-to-head in most segments of the market, and with most competitors focusing on the regional jet market, a Russian company with roots in the old Tupolev company is betting there's another niche to be filled: a wide-body jet in the 280-passenger range, optimized for medium-haul flights.

The company, Rosavia, has announced that it's completed wind-tunnel tests in Germany on what it calls the Frigate Ecojet and hopes that it can fly by 2018 and deliver planes for service by 2021. With a price tag at about the cost of an A320, the company says it can break even on 115 planes.

Considering the competition, that's hopeful for them; many aviation experts doubt there's really much demand in that niche. On medium-haul routes, when traffic grows, airlines have a choice: bigger plane, or more flights with smaller planes.

The need for more seats at capacity-limited airports has recently led United, for example, to swap in larger 757s at flights serving Washington Reagan. The recent stretched 737 and A320 models, hitting the 200-passenger mark, might be the real winners in the market for medium-haul high-volume routes.

The Ecojet (named for cheap price and operation, not for the environment) plane would have an unusually flat oval configuration, not the round tube of most planes. The seats would be arranged along three, not two, aisles.

The wind-tunnel and engineering tests were done in Germany, but the manufacturing location is yet to be determined. The company plans to locate a factory in an EU country to make certification easier; Russia's certification standards are not harmonized with European or U.S. regulations and the company wants to avoid the cost of having to be certified twice.


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