Interview:NAL's 5,000cr RTA-70 commercial aircraft programme


Regular Member
May 10, 2010
17 Jul 2010 8ak: With both Boeing and Airbus predicting that India will need around 1,000 commercial jets in the next 2 decades and forecasting a domestic traffic increase of 10% to 12% there is little doubt that there is a decent demand for a regional commercial aircraft. After the unfortunate crash of the 14-seater, Saras plane in March 2009, National Aerospace Laboratory NAL is back with a more ambitious plan to build a larger 70-90 seater aircraft termed RTA-70. In this regard we spoke to QuEST Chairman Aravind Melligeri about the project.

8ak: Please explain the current status of the RTA 70 project

Melligeri: The project is at a very early stage. NAL will build a design bureau and should plan on a quick initial configuration freeze after talking to potential customers. This will help it build a detailed business plan and seek appropriate funds and support from the government, as well as other risk sharing partners. This program is being viewed as a major public-private initiative. The challenge for NAL would be to design a plane from scratch and build it to be globally competitive standards.

8ak: One problem with Saras was the 100% indigenisation objective whereas the world is moving towards a global supply chain. What are their views on working with external partners?

Melligeri: In discussions with NAL they have not given any indication that they would exclude anyone who can help provide the solution within the parameters. They want to ensure that the program is not under any risk that could arise from any embargos as well as that there are no black boxes in terms of transfer of technology.

This public-private initiative will help bring together the best in class of local and global talent for the design, development, manufacturing, serial production and program management of the RTA-70 programme. We from QuEST have offered the key stakeholders that we can support in these initiatives of tapping global resources for the success of the programmes. We have had some preliminary discussion with the RTA-70 program team from NAL in this regard. We are also sensitive to needs and the risk of embargo and will assit in safeguarding against these risks. NAL should not risk being on a learning curve with this programme.

8ak: Is it fair to assume that the plane will not be cost-competitive and hence difficult to force at least the civilian and export markets if not also defence?

Melligeri: On a program like this, the key cost overrun contributors are typically- poor configuration definition, late design modifications, lack of timely decision making, poor or weak programme management, programme delays, all these have a huge impact on cost and its amortization over the life of the programme. These factors can very easily make a programme unviable of excessive investment upfront We have seen even the most seasoned global aerospace majors tripping up on these factors. NAL cannot afford to have delivery timelines stretched and it has to take advantage of India's lower cost base. Cost of aluminium, composites, actuation/landing gear, engines etc are all pretty standard across the globe. It also needs to calearly understand for what aspects it needs to tap global capabilities because these are not available in India or are not mature enough in India and could place a huge risk on the programme.

Besides the funds, the government has to ensure that there are enough orders from the civilian and military side. While it has control over military purchases, currently there is no import duty or offsets on the purchase of commercial aircraft by Indian air transport operators. The government will have to look at certain policies to make the project viable.

India itself has sufficient demand. Air India has only 2 Bombardier CRJ (Vayudoot) regional jets in the 80 to 100 seater range. The growth in Indian aviation will come from regional airports which do not have the infrastructure to handle larger planes. Take for example the Hubli and Kolhapur airstrips where most of the commercial airliners cannot land their large planes. This will be a major demard driver for this programme..

8ak: What is the opportunity for the private sector?

Melligeri: QuEST has shared with the programme leadership team as well as with NAL that QuEST and its partners can assist in the initial configuration definition phase, design studies, detail design, sub-systems engineering, manufacturing, supply and programme management. Given the 5,000 (US$1.1 billion) crore project cost and a 30 year lifecycle of the aircraft, private sector players will also have opportunities in the maintenance, repairs and operations of the aircraft.

8ak note: Some more details on the challenges facing the program are described as part of a larger report. Centre for Aviation "More turboprops coming to the market... maybe". Another aviation expert pointed out that NAL is currently seeking the initial 200cr it needs to initiate the first step. He added that the original plans were similar to turboprop from Saab and that it would be better to just indigenise a design from either ATR or Saab to significantly reduce the project risk and time lines. The problem he said and is often echoed in the news is that India always wants to go for the best without even having basics in place. This leads to decades long delays across most programs.

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