Competition is turning towards larger regional jets. What is next for the manufacturers?

Regional aviation continues to be one of the more dynamic sectors of aerospace and the line-upof players at Farnborough 2002 reflected the considerable change that has occurred since the last year's Paris air show.

Conspicuous by its absence from the line-up of aircraft was the Avro RJX, terminated after the US terrorist attacks on 11 September by BAE Systems. US-German manufacturer Fairchild Dornier, instead of being able to announce the first flight of its 728, looked set to become another historical footnote. This left Brazilian manufacturer Embraer to steal the show with the European debut of its 170 regional jet.

After a slow start, the Brazilian programme has shifted into high gear with five aircraft now in flight test, including the first fully configured airline demonstrator. Five months after the first prototype flew and seven months ahead of the 70-seater's scheduled entry into service with launch customer Swiss, Embraer launched a European sales tour at Farnborough. With the homegrown RJX and 728 now seemingly destined for museums, sales prospects for the 170 look increasingly promising.

Alitalia has already taken the first steps towards ordering the 170, while Lufthansa has embarked on a search for a successor to its recently cancelled 728 order. British Airways is reviving its competition for up to 30 aircraft in the 70- to 110-seat category in conjunction with a similarly sized requirement for partner Qantas, while other mainline carriers such as Air France and Finnair contemplate their options.

Jet Airways of India chose Farnborough to announce plans to order 10 Embraer 175s, plus 10 options, for delivery between 2004 and 2007, giving the manufacturer a launch commitment for the stretched 78-seat version of the 170.

Bombardier, meanwhile, announced a handful of follow-on orders comprising two CRJ200s and one 70-seat CRJ700 for Delta Connection and two more 50-seat aircraft destined for the Hungarian national carrier Malev.

The Canadian manufacturer already has an established European base with 45 CRJ200s and CRJ700s on order or in service with Lufthansa CityLine and Eurowings alone. But, with European mainline carriers increasingly focusing on larger-body aircraft rather than the 35/50-seat regional jets that make up most of the US market, it is clear that the 70-seat CRJ700 and new 86-seat CRJ900 face a competitive challenge.

That Bombardier took a long and hard look at Fairchild Dornier could be interpreted as an admission that it needs a larger aircraft in its product range. While the company was interested in the planned 90/110-seat 928 growth derivative of the 728, its reluctance to acquire a potential competitor to its own CRJ700/900 and Lufthansa's refusal to change its order from the 728 to the larger 928 undermined any rescue deal.

This leaves the Canadian manufacturer dusting off plans for the similar-sized, five-abreast BRJ-X-90 and -110 first unveiled four years ago at Farnborough, but shelved in 2000 in favour of the low-cost CRJ900 stretch to 86 seats.

A new aircraft is unlikely to cost less to develop than the projected $1 billion pricetag for completing the 728/928 programme. The critical questions being asked are: how big a market is there really for a new 90/110-seat aircraft and how much margin for growth exists before the company begins bumping up against Airbus's and Boeing's lowest competing models?

Bombardier could opt to do nothing, and continue to invest in improvements to its present family of 50- to 86-seat aircraft, with its relatively narrow four-abreast cabin cross-section that stretches back 25 years to the original Challenger business jet. If so, analysts worry, the company risks conceding the regional jet market to newer and larger designs.

But the BRJ-Xmay not be the answer. Teal Group analyst Richard Aboulafia believes the aircraft is a 100-seat orphan and a fundamentally flawed concept. "There is a no-man's land out there between regionals and mainline aircraft and its there for a good reason," he says, citing US scope-clause restrictions.

"This is a risk, and is it worth taking? The idea of Bombardier lavishing $1 billion on a standalone product is not consistent with what they have done before. They have a niche in business and regional aircraft and would do well to concentrate on that," he says.

Source: Flight International