Big Changes in Store for Mitsubishi’s Next MRJ Derivative

 - May 14, 2019, 8:49 AM

Mitsubishi Aircraft (Mitac) expects to detail plans for significant changes to the smaller of its two MRJ regional jets under development during June’s Paris Air Show as part of an effort to better satisfy scope clause-restrained airlines in the U.S.

Speaking after a May 10 ceremony marking the opening of Mitac’s U.S. headquarters in Renton, Washington, Mitac chief development officer Alex Bellamy explained that the airplane formerly known as the MRJ70—what the company now calls “the concept”— will need to carry 76 seats in a three-class configuration while retaining the MRJ70’s ability to meet the 86,000-pound maximum takeoff weight limitations in the scope clauses written into pilot union labor contracts at the three U.S. major airlines. Bellamy, whose role with Mitac recently shifted from MRJ program head to chief development officer, would offer no further details of the plan other than to say the airplane would retain commonality with the larger MRJ90, certification and entry into service of which the company expects by the middle of next year.

“[Seating configuration is] possibly one change, but we have a refresh and a restatement over all of the product to bring it up to the latest technology,” explained Bellamy, who added that the project would involve “fundamentally” no change to the airframe.

Mitsubishi considers the U.S. by far the biggest market for the MRJ, and when development began more than a decade ago most company executives expected scope clauses at the major airlines to relax enough to allow operation of the MRJ90 at their regional affiliates. Market conditions and the appetite by mainline airline executives to confront their pilot groups over the issues have changed, however, and Mitsubishi’s customers have clearly indicated they don’t plan to further push for concessions by the time contract-amendable dates usher in the start of the next round of collective bargaining, soon after the turn of the decade.

“What we've been working on is I think fundamentally improved over what the MRJ70 was,” said Bellamy. “The MRJ70 was a product in a market which was different years before. And where we sit today is a market where scope isn't going to change, not for the foreseeable future or not for the predictable future anyway.”

Of course, the MRJ’s main competitors for U.S. sales—Embraer and Bombardier—face the same constraints. For Embraer, that means its new 76-seat E175-E2, whose mtow also exceeds the 86,000-pound limit, cannot fly with the regional affiliates of the three major U.S. airlines either. Bombardier, meanwhile, signaled its intention to exit the airliner business altogether following its announcement in early May that would sell its aerostructures businesses in Belfast and Morocco as part of consolidating its aerospace enterprise into a “single, streamlined and fully integrated” unit located at sites in Montreal, Mexico, and Texas.

Whether or not another company eventually takes control of Bombardier's CRJ program, Mitsubishi sees the development as one sign of the market’s lack of appetite for anything less than a new-generation airplane powered by new engines. Embraer, whose original E175 has dominated 76-seat sales in the U.S. over the past decade, would disagree given that airplane’s relatively healthy backlog and incumbency advantages. Nevertheless, Bellamy called the MRJ “very well positioned to be the only next-generation regional aircraft in the marketplace.”

“We see that one of our competitors is signaling that they wish to exit the marketspace entirely and the other one is going to be focused on other market sectors too,” said Bellamy. “So they're not just going to be in the regional sector as it's traditionally defined. Some 90 percent of airports today have a regional jet in them. Sixty-three percent of airports in the U.S. only have a regional jet in them. Nearly 50 percent of aircraft flying today in the United States are regional jets. So this is not a shrinking market. This is a very sizeable market.”