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Russia's fighter jet giant Sukhoi signs record deal with Italy at Le Bourget in Paris

Russian fighter jet giant Sukhoi, keen to make a name for itself in passenger planes, won its first foreign customer for the civilian Superjet at the Paris Air Show Le Bourget on Tuesday, announcing a 20-plane deal with regional carrier Itali Airlines.

Sukhoi director Mikhail Pogosian doesn't want to stop there. "It's optimistic, the activity here," he said in an interview at the show.

He said state-owned Sukhoi was in negotiation this week with Boeing Co. and Airbus parent EADS as well as airlines from several countries about possible involvement in or purchases of the medium-range Superjet.

Sukhoi, renowned for its military fighters, has sought a higher profile for its passenger plane plans, and the Kremlin has high hopes that the Superjet program will boost Russia's share of the civilian aviation market. The Superjet is being developed with help from Boeing, France's Snecma and Thales and other western companies.

Itali Airlines ordered 10 Superjet 100-95s in a 98-passenger version, with options for 10 more, for a total value of US$283 million (EUR 211 million), Pogosian said.

The first units will be delivered in 2009 and all 10 aircraft will be in service by 2011, he said.

The twin-engine plane will allow the Pescara, Italy-based airline to increase the frequency of flights on its domestic network, Sukhoi said in a statement.

Tuesday's deal brings to 71 the number of firm orders Sukhoi has for the Superjet so far. All the others are by Russian customers.

The rollout of the first Superjet is expected in September, with its first flight by the end of the year. Russia's flagship airline, JSC Aeroflot, is expected to put the first Superjet into service in late 2008.

"We are developing a reliable, competitive regional jet," Pogosian said.

He said Sukhoi hopes to sell at least 700 of the jets, including 35 percent to North America and 25 percent to Europe, with just 7 percent reserved for Russia and China.

The Superjet will be the first Russian-built jet to conform to Western environmental and safety standards, and therefore the first that can be used on most international routes and exported to international markets. Its purpose is to replace the aging Tupolev and Yak models that many Russian airlines use on domestic flights.

The Kremlin is also hoping the jet project will give a desperately needed boost to ailing civilian jet manufacturers, many of whom have stagnated as domestic demand for the outdated Russian planes has dried up.

Outside investors are eager to get involved. Tuesday's deal may boost a bid by Italian conglomerate Finmeccanica SpA and its Alenia Aeronautica subsidiary to buy a blocking stake of 25 percent plus one share in Sukhoi's civil aviation arm. The deal, signed a year ago, is still awaiting Russian government approval.

Alenia CEO Giovanni Bertolone hailed Tuesday's deal, saying, "We are very proud that it is an Italian fast-growing carrier to be the launch company of the Superjet in the western European market."

Finmeccanica said the deal will involve designing and developing the production and the marketing of passenger planes with 75-100 seats. Finmeccanica has said it could invest up to Ђ300 million (US$376.4 million) in the venture.

Pogosian, seen as more pro-American than some of his Russian aviation industry counterparts, has sought to boost ties with Boeing, and dismissed reports that Sukhoi was pursuing a role in Airbus' A350 program.

"We have no direct coordination with Airbus and don't plan any," he said.

Pogosian is also vice president of the aviation umbrella group OAK, which he confirmed is seeking cooperation with Airbus parent European Aeronautic Defence & Space Co. NV.

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