The rapid rise of the regional jets at the top end of the market and the intense competition between engine makers seeking to power them dominated debate at this year's Regional Airline Association convention in Reno, Nevada, on 12-14 May. There was also spirited defence of 19-seat aircraft at the bottom end of the market. Attendance was a record and the hall was packed with 159 exhibitors - a 12% an increase on numbers in 1996. AI(R) defers engine choice for new regional-jet programme

Aero International (Regional) has delayed choice of an engine for the Air Jet programme until "early June", after closer-than-expected competition between the two finalists, General Electric and a combined Snecma/ Pratt & Whitney Canada bid.

"It's taking us longer than we expected to choose," says AI(R) senior vice-president for sales and marketing, Jeff Marsh. After shortlisting the GE CF34-8C and the Snecma/P&W SPW14 "paper engine" in December 1996, AI(R) had expected originally to make its final decision in April.

This slipped to May as negotiations went on, and is now due to be finalised in time for the Paris air show in June, when AI(R) hopes to obtain board authority to offer the AI(R) 70, the 70-seat first member of the new Air Jet family.

"It comes down to how much risk they're willing to share with us on the programme," says Marsh. Other factors include credibility with airlines and - in the CF34's case - the potential commonality advantage with Bombardier's Canadair Regional Jet Series 700.

AI(R) is confident that it will be cleared to go ahead with the regional-jet family, which is aimed at a market estimated to cover 2,000 aircraft over the first 20 years of the next century. "We'd expect 50% of the market," he adds. Despite the hold-up over the engine choice, the plan to fly the first AI(R) 70 by May 2000 is still on track, with certification due in 2001 and entry into service in June of that year.

"The object is to have a family of regional jets, and the AI(R) 58 would be the first derivative. Development of bigger aircraft is not part of the business plan," Marsh says. The original Air Jet concept involved possible growth to 80 seats, but this may be curbed by the continued sales success of the Avro RJ family and the emergence of the Chinese/Airbus-led AE-316/AE-317 (formerly AE- 100) project. Technical developments include adopting a fly-by-wire flight-control system.

AI(R) has revised its Avro RJ production plans and has extended its probable production life beyond 2005, compared with the original expectation of closure by early 2000. According to Marsh, the demise of Fokker, combined with the RJ's growing popularity, is giving the aircraft an unexpected lease of life.

Source: Flight International