Professional sports is big business. Whether it’s the NFL in the US, Champions League soccer in Europe, cricket in India or hockey in Russia, the top clubs are worth billions and their athletes tens of millions.
Aviation is big business too, and Russian aerospace firm Sukhoi thinks it’s on to a winner by combining the two. It’s SportJet 100 is fitted with a gym, physiotherapy equipment and biomedical monitoring built into the seats.
The idea is to make even the most pampered professional sportsmen feel at ease and looked after, maximising their performance and recreating as much as possible the same home advantage while playing away.
Launched at the Farnborough International Air Show this week, the SportsJet is a variant of the company’s SuperJet 100 (SSJ) civil aircraft and will be in the air in time for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
Eugene Andrachnikov, senior vice president of commerce at Sukhoi Civil Aircraft, says: “The underlying idea is market driven. The sports industry has been aggressively growing around the world, and so has professional athlete’s travel.
“Most top professional teams today use charter flights and can spend up to 50% of their time in the air. Our aircraft offers spa facilities for the athletes to recover, sleep and circulate.”
Top tier buyers
Sukhoi estimates that the “sports air transportation market” is worth more $600 million per year. Andrachnikov is betting that the people who invest hundreds of millions in their sports team will also be prepared to invest in an aircraft tailored to boost the performance of their investment.
It’s not the first time a sports jet concept has been suggested. US design firm Teague developed an Athlete’s plane in partnership with Nike in 2014 that never went beyond a virtual concept.
Andrachnikov is dismissive of the Teague attempt: “It never materialised apart from in internet news stories. This is the real thing. We’ve created a mock up and invested in R&D.”
Sukhoi says it is already in talks with the Russian hockey league and plans to demonstrate a full 15m mock up of the SportJet at the Rio Olympics’ Russian guesthouse later this year.
The SSJ100 has four different zones: a recovery zone with bike, treadmill, physiotherapy table, ECG recorder, spirometer, hypoxic generator and blood pressure monitor; a seating zone for players, equipped with biometrics monitoring devices such as bioimpedance sensors and a pulse oximeter; a coaching staff zone with a touchscreen and video facilities for performance review and tactics planning and finally a zone for administration staff with economy-style seating.
Production of the SportJet is planned to start in Russia at the beginning of 2017. The SportJet has been developed with its Italian partner company, SuperJet International (SJI) in Venice, a joint venture between Sukhoi and Leonardo-Finmeccanica, which is designing the interior installation, handling EASA certification, marketing and sales and flight training.
The aircraft will be sold either to individual sports team owners who currently hire charter jets or make payments to professional leagues for air transport. Although exotic and niche, Andrachnikov insists the SportsJet is “not an expensive toy” and that a significant amount of its target customers will take up the aircraft because it is cheaper.
He says: “Every aircraft used now for carrying sports team are narrow bodies. On a cost per trip basis we outperform them because we are lighter, more fuel efficient and the right size for this particular task. We’re not taking a market share, we are creating a market to take it over.
“SportJets will eventually become an integral part of the air transportation market'.”
The aircraft is a key part of Sukhoi’s strategy. The company, which was formed in 2007 to produce the SSJ100 and plans to sell 599 of the business jets by 2020 and so far has orders for 76.
The SSJ100 entered service in 2011 and recent customers include CityJet in Europe and the Royal Thai Airforce. Engineers are also working on a stretched version of the aircraft, which will increase the number of seats from 87 to 120.
Competition in the business jet market is fierce and Sukhoi is attempting to create its own market in order to dominate it. The aircraft is a punt, but if the highly customised and tailored SportJet can hit the big leagues, it will be a triumph of marketing in the global aviation sector.