Stage set for MRJ at Paris

Zhuhai
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Two Paris air shows ago, in 2007, the Mitsubishi MRJ regional jet made its first ripple in the industry when Mitsubishi Heavy Industries presented a full-scale cabin mock-up to gauge interest. And potential customers responded, prompting MHI to green-light the programme months later and kick off a marketing campaign.

In March 2008, MHI set up a new corporation, Mitsubishi Aircraft, to market and sell the MRJ and officially launched the aircraft programme. Touted as a more fuel and cost-efficient regional jet, the MRJ won its first order from Japan's All Nippon Airways in the same month. The Star Alliance carrier placed a firm order for 15 MRJs, taking 10 options. US regional carrier Trans States Holdings became the second MRJ customer, signing a letter of intent for 50 firm orders and 50 options.

Fast-forward three years and the MRJ programme looks to be progressing at full tilt.

FIRM PROGRESS

Just days before a devastating earthquake and tsunami struck Japan on 11 March, Mitsubishi executives had been out in full force at Asian Aerospace in Hong Kong, where the MRJ cabin mock-up was on display and held meetings with potential customers. And even as parts of Japan were seeking to recover from the disaster and subsequent nuclear crisis, Mitsubishi Aircraft reassured customers that the MRJ programme was "progressing steadily and firmly". On 5 April, assembly of the MRJ began in Nagoya, at MHI's Tobishima plant. The initial work consisted of riveting on the frame structure around the MRJ's emergency escape hatch for crew in the cockpit roof.

Much has been said about the disciplined and orderly spirit of Japanese society, especially in the aftermath of the 11 March disaster, and the MRJ programme appears to be imbued with this spirit.

mrj assembly - mitsubishi aircraft corporation
© Mitsubishi Aircraft Corporation
MRJ assembly kicked off in April

When the MRJ was formally launched in March 2008, the manufacturer aimed for service entry in 2013. After extensive changes to the aircraft in 2009 - made in response to customer feedback - first delivery of the MRJ to ANA was pushed from the fourth quarter of 2013 to the first quarter of 2014. Mitsubishi has thus far indicated that it is holding to this date. In an industry dominated by news of delays to in-development aircraft programmes, the MRJ has been a bright spot, even if its profile is lower than those of other jets set to enter into service in the next few years.

Company officials commenting on the timeline of the programme have rarely been too far off the mark. In May 2010, Mitsubishi Aircraft's president Hideo Egawa said the aim was to freeze the MRJ's design by the end of August. This was completed in early September, and manufacturing of parts began later that month. MHI made the first metal cut for the horizontal stabiliser on 30 September 2010.

A year before that, at Asian Aerospace in Hong Kong, Mitsubishi Aircraft unveiled major changes to the MRJ, which pushed back first delivery by a quarter. First flight was also rescheduled to the second quarter of 2012 from the fourth quarter of 2011.

A major change involved the switch to using aluminium for the wing instead of carbonfibre composites. This resulted in lowering the composite element of the aircraft to about 10-15% of the total airframe. Mitsubishi Aircraft said then that the change to aluminium would make structural changes easier as aluminium wings required a shorter lead-time. It indicated it would add a stretched 100-seat model to the MRJ family made up of the 92-seat MRJ90 and the 78-seat MRJ70. The MRJ90 will make the first flight in the second quarter of 2012, and the MRJ70 will take to the air about a year later.

mrj90 - mitsubishi aircraft corporation
© Mitsubishi Aircraft Corporation
Mitsubishi's MRJ regional jet won its first order, from All Nippon Airways, in March 2008

Besides making changes to the MRJ's wing, the airframer decided to combine the forward and aft cargo compartments into one compartment to boost efficiency. It also enlarged the cabin by raising its height by 38.1mm (1.5in). This created an additional 12% in volume of space within overhead storage compartments in the cabin to accommodate large roller bags.

Mitsubishi Aircraft says the changes were made after discussions with potential customers in Europe and the USA. Trans States' order of up to 100 MRJs was a big boost for the programme, showing the aircraft to have market potential outside Asia, but industry observers have noted that there has been no new order since Trans States signed its letter of intent in October 2009.

While the airframer has reported much interest from potential customers since then, this has not translated into commitments. Industry watchers are keen to see if it announces new aircraft orders in Paris. Mitsubishi Aircraft executives were coy when asked about the possibility, but one thing is clear - the airframer is getting ready to put up a show at the industry's biggest event. It plans to exhibit its cabin mock-up with new and improved seats, says the company.

Japan's government has also thrown its weight behind the MRJ. The international arm of government-owned Japan Finance, Japan Bank for International Cooperation, is in the midst of coming up with a scheme to boost financing for developing countries that want to acquire the MRJ, says Mitsubishi Aircraft. Bank officials have been attending MRJ financing conferences overseas to promote the jet.

At Farnborough last year, Egawa said there was much interest in his company's product, despite no firm orders being announced at the show, and predicted that the airframer would soon add new customers to its orderbook. Next week in Paris, the industry will find out if Egawa's optimism was justified.

CHINA LOOKS WEST

Comac is this year to have its biggest-ever presence at the Paris air show. Officials indicate that the Chinese manufacturer's C919 cabin mock-up will make its international air show debut there, in a departure from its usual low-key presence at trade shows outside Greater China.

The mock-up was the star at last year's Airshow China in Zhuhai and is traditionally considered the most important event for the Chinese aviation industry. Comac took the opportunity then to announce a launch order, spanning up to 100 C919s, from four Chinese airlines and two lessors.

Comac has since wrapped up the preliminary design phase of the regional jet, which is to have its first flight in 2014 and enter service in 2016. The airframer has said it aims to finish the detailed design phase in 2012. In March, it announced a co-operation agreement with Canadian airframer Bombardier, with both companies saying they aim to undertake commonality studies of the C919 and Bombardier's CSeries airliner.

It is not clear what actions the ensue, but industry observers say the agreement could give Comac a credible partner as it seeks to eventually market the C919 to the West. Comac has all along made plain its intent for the C919 to be a relevant product outside China, and it wants to get the aircraft certificated by US and European authorities after receiving Chinese approval.

The airframer is also gearing up for the first delivery of its ARJ21 regional jet to launch operator Chengdu Airlines by the end of the year.

The programme, launched with a service-entry target of 2007, has been delayed several times. Under pressure to meet the delivery target announced last year, Comac appears to be pulling out all stops to ensure this is done.

Its four-aircraft ARJ21 test fleet has been subjected to intensive flight testing in the past few months and Aircraft 101 completed static testing on 12 April after three and a half years.

The other aircraft in the fleet have been undergoing flutter tests and icing tests among others. But the ARJ21 is not expected to appear in Paris, Comac indicates.