New Breed of RJ Makers Making Inroads

 - May 16, 2011, 8:21 AM

Two of the new breed of big regional jets from the Eastern Hemisphere reached some long-awaited milestones recently, namely the Russian certification of the Sukhoi Superjet 100 and the signing of the first firm order for the Mitsubishi MRJ by an airline based outside Japan.

The achievements came as questions mounted about the commercial and technical progress of projects at better established Western commercial aircraft manufacturers, including Bombardier–whose C Series has failed to gain an order since Republic Airways signed for 40 CS300s last February–and Embraer, which will continue to hedge on a successor to the E-Jet series until, according to CEO Frederico Curado, Boeing decides on whether to embark an all-new 737 or re-engine the existing model.

Granted, the C Series’ main competition resides with the Airbus A320 and the Boeing 737, as would any E-Jet successor from Embraer. But now there seems little doubt that the Western world’s existing regional jet lines–the Bombardier CRJ and Embraer E-Jet–could lose a large piece of their once captive markets as the likes of Sukhoi and Mitsubishi make inroads into the U.S. and Mexico, for example.

In fact, Mitsubishi’s firm order for 50 airplanes came from a St. Louis-based company, whose subsidiaries fly both CRJs and E-Jets. Although it has yet to offer details of the mix of sizes on order (the MRJ70 seats some 76 passengers and the MRJ90 seats 88), Trans States Holdings made a statement of sorts in switching its allegiance to the Japanese family, whose Pratt & Whitney PW1200G “geared” turbofans promise big fuel-burn advantages over the GE CF34s used in the CRJs and E-Jets. Trans States’ GoJet subsidiary currently flies 25 CRJ700s and its Minneapolis-based Compass Airlines unit flies 36 E175s.

For its part, Sukhoi found its first legitimate Western airline customer in Mexico’s Interjet, which placed a firm order for fifteen 93-seat SSJ100-95s just as the Russian regional jet wrapped up flight testing for IAC AR certification. Performance from high-altitude airports will prove vital for operation from Interjet’s two hubs, noted Interjet president Miguel Aleman Magnani. Mexico City sits at 7,341 feet msl and, even more critical, Toluca–the airline’s main operating base–lies at 8,458 feet msl.

Embraer, however, exacted a measure of revenge by registering a firm order for 10 E190s from Ukrainian airline Dniproavia. Already an ERJ-145 operator, Dniprovia expects to take delivery of the first two 104-seat airplanes during this year’s fourth quarter.

Meanwhile, any Western customer for the SSJ100 will have to wait until at least EASA certification–and expected near concomitant approval from the U.S. FAA–allows for operation outside the Russian certification authority’s sphere of influence. Most of the SSJ100’s Western-made equipment, including its Powerjet SaM146 engines, have already gained European approval, and the Superjet team expressed confidence that the airplane would gain EASA certification within six months of Russian approval. Notably, EASA pilot teams have flown the aircraft with their Russian counterparts regularly for more than a year-and-a-half.