HONG KONG • A new, long-delayed 88-passenger jet from Japan may finally be the right plane at the right time, as more cities in Asia and Europe are seeking to link up with one another and the global air travel network.
The Mitsubishi Regional Jet (MRJ), the first airliner built in Japan since the 1960s, began certification flights last month in Moses Lake, Washington, to satisfy that demand.
Mitsubishi Heavy Industries' new airliner is testing the skies just as rivals are moving to sell off their manufacturing operations for jets with up to 160 seats.
Boeing is set to buy 80 per cent of the Embraer's commercial operations in a joint venture, while Bombardier last year sold control of its C Series airliner project to Airbus and is exploring "strategic options" for its regional jet operations.
At stake particularly in the market for jets with fewer seats is US$135 billion (S$183 billion) in sales in the two decades until 2037, according to industry group Japan Aircraft Development.
"Bombardier's moves do indeed create opportunities for the MRJ," said Mr Richard Aboulafia, aerospace analyst at Teal Group. "It's the biggest single factor in the MRJ's favour."
With few seats and smaller fuselages, regional jets are a different class of aircraft from larger, narrow-body planes such as Boeing's 737 or Airbus' A-320.
The MRJ has a range of about 3,219km, while a smaller variant can haul up to 76 people for about the same distance.
A long-time supplier of aircraft components to Boeing, Mitsubishi Heavy is developing the MRJ to emerge from its customer's shadow. After spending at least US$2 billion over more than a decade, the manufacturer is looking to get its jet certified and start deliveries to launch partner ANA Holdings.
Mitsubishi initially planned test flights in 2012 but blew past that deadline because of production difficulties.
The company, which makes ships, nuclear power plants and aerospace components, expects to have the plane ready for customers next year, a timetable that will test the company, said Mitsubishi Aircraft president Hisakazu Mizutani.
A lot now hinges on Mitsubishi's ability to get the jets ready on schedule, said analyst Sho Fukuhara of Jefferies Japan, who said the firm's current 407 MRJ orders are not enough to make the programme profitable. "Longer term, there should be an opportunity. But right now, they have to deliver the very first plane. Potential buyers are looking at how they proceed with their schedule."
The company announced last October that it was pumping an extra 170 billion yen (S$2.1 billion) in capital to its aircraft unit's existing capital of 100 billion yen. Mitsubishi also cancelled 50 billion yen of the debt owed by the aircraft division.
Mitsubishi Heavy is not the only Asian manufacturer betting that it can build aircraft more cheaply and efficiently. Commercial Aircraft of China, also known as Comac, has a new regional jet in service, while Korea Aerospace Industries is studying whether to develop a 100-passenger aircraft.
"The aviation market in Asia is expected to grow further in the coming years and there will be demand for these aircraft," said analyst Lee Dong-heon of Daishin Securities in Seoul. "The shift in the regional aviation segment we have seen over the last year or so has opened up opportunities."
In order to compete, Mitsubishi cannot just rely on its home market. The biggest customers, therefore, could be in the United States, where large airlines try to cut costs by outsourcing short flights to smaller carriers that fly regional jets.
Trans States Airlines, which operates flights for United Airlines under the name United Express, ordered 50 of the planes, with options for 50 more, in 2010.
As part of its preparations to ramp up deliveries and support operations, Mitsubishi's aircraft unit separated its sales and marketing divisions this month, created a customer support unit and moved its US headquarters to Renton, Washington, the Seattle suburb where Boeing assembles its 737 jets.