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Mitsubishi revamps its regional jet as it aims for a US market breakthrough

Dominic Gates, The Seattle Times on

Published in Business News

While the first variant of Mitsubishi's new regional jet is currently being flight tested at Moses Lake in Central Washington, the Japanese industrial giant announced Thursday a smaller, reconfigured and rebranded model designed to hit a sweet spot for U.S. airlines.

Goodbye to the Mitsubishi Regional Jet (MRJ) and hello to the SpaceJet, a name intended to convey to passengers that its spacious cabin offers as much room and comfort as any mainline jet. A mock-up of the proposed new interior will be on display next week at the Paris Air Show.

More significant than the new name, Mitsubishi has stretched the fuselage of this second member of its regional jet (RJ) family to provide the maximum passenger capacity allowed within U.S. restrictions on RJs. That transforms a jet that wasn't selling into one that's the ideal size for U.S. airlines.

The global business of producing regional jets -- those small, often uncomfortable, sub-100-seat airplanes that major airlines typically fly domestically on less popular routes -- has rapidly consolidated as Bombardier of Canada is leaving the business and Boeing is buying the RJ business of Embraer of Brazil.

Mitsubishi is seizing the moment by developing this new model while simultaneously making a bid for Bombardier's regional jet business to provide a ready-made sales and support infrastructure in North America.

That looks likely to produce an unexpected twist. In the coming years, Mitsubishi may find itself in a position it always said it would avoid: head-to-head competition with Boeing.

 

And there's even a whispered chance that the new model SpaceJet for the American market could be built in the U.S., perhaps in Washington state.

Overcoming restrictions

The first MRJ model, a 90-seat airplane previously called the MRJ90 and now renamed the SpaceJet M90, is completing flight tests in Moses Lake. It's scheduled to enter commercial service with All Nippon Airways (ANA) of Japan by the middle of next year -- fully seven years late.

But that plane is too large to sell in the U.S., by far the biggest regional jet market, because American carriers work under "scope clause" restrictions with their pilot unions that limit the size of these secondary planes that are flown by lower-paid pilots.

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