Mitsubishi Shaking Off MRJ’s Credibility Gap

 - February 1, 2013, 12:35 AM
Mitsubishi has now logged firm orders for 165 MRJs.

Mitsubishi Aircraft’s firm order in December for 100 MRJ90s from St. George, Utah-based SkyWest Airlines has not only confirmed the company’s ability to sell the new regional jet in large quantities, it might well have validated the wisdom of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries’ industrial ambitions. After all, the Japanese aircraft industry hadn’t embarked on such a serious effort at gaining type certification for a new airliner in some 50 years; skepticism from airlines–not particularly keen to take risks on unproven and unfamiliar suppliers–seemed only natural.

Launched on the strength of a firm order for a comparatively paltry 15 airplanes in March 2008 from Japan’s All Nippon Airways, the MRJ, in fact, for years struggled to gain credibility, and not for wholly unfair reasons. Although a letter of intent signed by St. Louis-based Trans States Airlines in October 2009 covering 50 airplanes marked something of a breakthrough for its marketing team, repeated changes to the design left many wondering when Mitsubishi could execute a proper cost-benefit analysis. Originally expected to make extensive use of composites in the fuselage and wings, the MRJ soon assumed a more traditional form after designers recognized that their somewhat radical approach, at least for a regional jet, would prove ineffective from both an operating cost and performance perspective. Now carrying some 15 percent composite content following a switch to an aluminum wing box, the MRJ also went through two size and shape changes, first from a circular, 114-inch barrel to a wider, oval-shaped structure, and back to a circular design measuring 116.5 inches in diameter. Those and other changes delayed the program several times, until the program passed its critical design review in the summer of 2010.

By March 2011 Pratt & Whitney had finished building the MRJ’s first PW1217G “geared turbofan” and less than a month later Mitsubishi would mark the start of assembly of the first airframe with a rivet-driving ceremony at Mitsubishi’s plant in Tobishima, Japan.

But some time between the start of assembly and the February 2012 Singapore airshow, something had gone terribly wrong in Japan. Although Mitsubishi Aircraft executives acknowledged a program “rescheduling” during an airshow press conference, not until April did the extent of the problem become clear.

A rather opaque statement from Mitsubishi, issued days before Pratt & Whitney would fly the first PW1217G on its Boeing 747SP test bed, explained that certain process validation errors would delay the program by as much as a year-and-a-half, meaning certification likely wouldn’t happen until the second half of 2015. During a media event held in Hartford by Pratt & Whitney in late April to coincide with the engine’s first flight, Mitsubishi Aircraft marketing director Yugo Fukuhara told AIN that the reasons for the latest delay centered primarily on Mitsubishi Heavy Industries’ failure to document engineering and production processes properly.

The program’s rather abrupt interruption came at the behest of the Japan Civil Aviation Bureau (JCAB), which, in concert with the FAA and the EASA, carries responsibility for issuing type and production certification for theairplane.

Since the JCAB intervened, Mitsubishi has had to remanufacture virtually all the parts for the first prototype, explained Fukuhara. “Sometimes our workers improve fabrication processes to improve efficiency,” said Fukuhara. “But we didn’t update the documents. So some processes are different from [what appeared in] the documents.”

Second, said Fukuhara, the company needs to produce more documentation of the actual process of testing and analysis used for type certification compliance. “We didn’t think [we would need] so many documents, not only [related to] the technology itself, but also the processes,” he added. “It took a longer time than expected.”

Some 10 months later, Mitsubishi has gone rather quiet about the industrial progress of the program, preferring to let the news of its recent sales success with SkyWest speak to the MRJ’s legitimacy. Asked for an interview with AIN, the company’s public relations office offered only to issue written replies to a list of e-mailed questions.

“It has been 50 years since Japan has produced a commercial airplane, and the MRJ is a bold challenge,” said the company in response to a query about the difficulties that led to its latest delay. “Although Japan is technically advanced, the general perception [was that] Japan [had fallen] behind in the field of aerospace compared to other developed countries. The MRJ project aims to contribute to the development of Japan’s aerospace field and to stimulate the Japanese economy as a result of [the] ripple effects created by investment and spending in aircraft technology.”

Asked whether or not its documentation now meets with the JCAB’s satisfaction, Mitsubishi issued a similarly oblique response. “We are discussing and coordinating with JCAB for the type certification…These processes will continue until the type certificate issue for [the] MRJ. This preparation for type certification processes has become very active.” Although the FAA continues to conduct what Mitsubishi described as a “shadow process,” the agency hasn’t stationed any personnel in Japan specifically for the MRJ project, according to the company.

Now scheduled to fly the MRJ for the first time by year-end, Mitsubishi still expects that development of the smaller of the two-variant design–the 78-seat MRJ70–will lag behind the 92-seat MRJ90 by roughly a year. It remains uncommitted to the proposed 100-seat MRJ100X, a variant in which European airlines have shown perhaps the most interest. “We are still monitoring the needs of our customers for the MRJ100X,” said Mitsubishi.