Mitsubishi MRJ regional jet: Japan's first passenger jet unveiled

Japan displayed its first passenger jet after a delay of almost four years, with a helping hand from bullet-train specialists and a schedule to conduct first test flights next year.

Lights flashed and traditional Japanese taiko drummers pounded out the beat on October 18 as Mitsubishi Aircraft revealed the regional jet in a hanger at Nagoya airport. About 500 people, including the presidents of customers ANA and Trans States Airlines, suppliers and government officials attended.

"It's taken a lot of hard work to get to this," ANA President Shinichiro Ito told reporters at the event. "We're looking forward to getting the plane in 2017."

Mitsubishi is building 78- and 92-seat versions of the plane, developed at a cost it estimates at 180 billion yen ($1.9 billion). The company plans by June to conduct a first flight of the jet, designated MRJ, with the larger model available first.

"This will give a big lift to Japan's aviation industry," Akihiro Nishimura, a vice minister of transport, told reporters at the ceremony.

Japan and China are leading an Asian race to break the hold of Embraer and Bombardier on the market for small passenger jets. With the Chinese project also delayed, Mitsubishi's Pratt & Whitney turbofan-engined MRJ will be a test of whether a new entrant can successfully break into the small group of leading aircraft manufacturers. Boeing and its European rival Airbus dominate the market for larger passenger planes.

"Despite delays, the MRJ is still poised to be first to the regional jet market with a next-generation engine," said Richard Aboulafia, a vice president of Teal Group, a US-based consultant.

One advantage Mitsubishi has is an order book, including options, for 407 jets. ANA will be the debut carrier, and three more airlines became customers this year, boosting the tally to six.

While the order book is a good start, Aboulafia said, the MRJ program needs to prove it can be competitive even against the market leader.

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Mitsubishi Aircraft targets winning half the global market for regional aircraft over the next 20 years as Bombardier focuses on its new CSeries jets, also delayed, which will be able to carry as many as 160 passengers.

"What really sets them above the rest is the technology," Richard Leach, president of customer Trans States, told reporters at the ceremony. The MRJ will be four years ahead of Embraer's planned upgrade to a family of E2 jets with new engines, he said.

The world fleet of jets seating 70 to 130 passengers will increase to about 6580 by 2033, from 3850 last year, as travel demand increases, according to forecasts from Brazil's Embraer.

China and Russia are also competing for regional jet orders. China will deliver its first ARJ21-700 to Chengdu Airlines by the end of this year, provided the aircraft receives an airworthiness certificate, the China Daily reported in December.

Russia's Sukhoi SuperJet 100, built by a joint venture between Moscow-based United Aircraft's Sukhoi and a unit of Italy's Finmeccanica SpA, started flying commercially with OAO Aeroflot in 2011.

Mitsubishi Aircraft, based in Nagoya, brought in railway project managers from parent Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to tighten control of the regional jet development and help overcome development bottlenecks that slowed the plane's introduction by about four years. The company has boosted the number of engineers on the project by 30 per cent to 1300, President Teruaki Kawai said earlier this year.

"If the MRJ can be flying the skies in Japan by the Olympics it will certainly give a boost to Japan's economy," Yoshiharu Ueki, president of Japan Airlines, told reporters at the event, referring to the 2020 Tokyo Games..

Mitsubishi in 2008 announced plans to build Japan's first passenger jet and has since pushed back the date for test flights three times. The company expects global demand for regional jets to be about 5000 planes over the two-decade period to 2030.

Japan's Honda Motor is developing a small business jet that can seat up to six passengers, and is set to be delivered to customers next year. The company says it's won two to three years of orders for what it calls a "flying sports car."

Bloomberg

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