What's next for regional aircraft?

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The regional jet has grown so much larger in its brief life since the 1990s that its latest incarnations now bump up against the smallest mainline airliner, leading many to ask what will come next.

The question is all about definition, or as Lufthansa head of group fleet management Nico Buchholzjokes: "It all depends on what you call a regional jet. In some parts of Asia, they could use a (Boeing) 747 as an RJ!" Buchholz continues: "In Europe, at least, the days of the 40- to 50-seater are limited. They have been used to develop markets that are now mature and in some cases have been replaced by a larger plane or by low-cost carriers."

The next generation of aircraft for regional routes is larger, and the model closest to becoming a reality is Bombardier's CSeries, an aircraft in the 100- to 149-seat range that the Canadian manufacturer likes to say is not really just a regional jet. The CSeries programme received a major boost in mid-March when Lufthansa's supervisory board approved a proposed order for 30 of the type.

The aircraft will be used by Lufthansa's Swiss International Air Lines subsidiary to replace its Avro RJ100 fleet from 2014. Lufthansa launched the CSeries programme last year when it signed a letter of intent for up to 60 of the aircraft. However, Bombardier looks to have missed an opportunity to seala second major airline customer after failing to conclude a deal with Qatar Airways. Qatar chief executive Akbar Al Baker describes talks with Bombardier as being "in the freezer".

Competing for the attention of the world's airlines are two other nascent aircraft models in a slightly smaller size range: Mitsubishi's Regional Jet offering and the SuperJet, a joint venture of Russian's Sukhoi and Alenia of Italy. Mitsubishi has won an order from Japan's All Nippon Airways for 15 MRJs and options for another 10 of the type. Scheduled for certification in 2012, the mostly composite MRJ would carry between 70 and 90 seats.

At Mitsubishi, as at Bombardier, the aircraft concept is built on new technology as well as on size both use modern composites for the fuselage and the Pratt&Whitney PW1000G engine. Dubbed the Pure Power, this engine uses a gear system that lets its fan operate at a different speed than the low-pressure compressor and turbine. This in turn allows each major section of the engine to operate at its highest efficiency.

The Pure Power project has some real cheerleaders. Delta Connection senior vice-president Don Barnhorst says: "What we really want is development among the engine makers. GE is a fine partner, but with the CF34 family that has powered regional jets since the beginning, they need competition. That's why we're rooting for Pratt."

John Buckley, vice-president of business development at SuperJet, says the 78- to 98-seat model uses a Russian-developed powerplantthat meets international standards. He explains: "The whole plan was that Russia wanted to build a plane that could meet western standards and since we couldn't start with a very large jet, we'd start with something smaller." The manufacturer, which has two examples in testing and a third entering testing this month, has "spoken to one major airline in the US and they are interested".

But Richard Aboulafia, the Teal Group analyst, says: "The foreign players, including a Chinese entrant, are political games as much as anything, for domestic consumption." Aboulafia is also highly sceptical of Bombardier's CSeries. Although the project has "serious technology and it isn't dead, there are obvious reasons why it's taking off like a senile chicken". Among these are the falling price of fuel and plummeting airline traffic, he says.

Pinnacle Airlines chief executive Phil Trenary is not looking at the CSeries or the MRJ. "The end now is not speed but efficiency and so the key is engine technology. There just aren't that many places where you can use the speed of a jet. And so the real need is a 90- to 100-seat turboprop. Bombardier is looking at a 400X and we have urged them to consider this very seriously," says Trenary. Pinnacle's regional subsidiary, Colgan Airways, is in the process of transitioning to an all-Bombardier Q400 fleet and Trenary is pleased with the aircraft's performance so far.

At ATR, plans are to launch a larger, 74-seat turboprop this summer. This twin-turboprop will use Pratt & Whitney Canada engines, just as the Q400 does. American Eagle, the largest North American operator of the ATR, may well order this or another ATR model, says the carrier's chief executive Peter Bowler.