It was in the lead-up to the Paris air show in June 2019 that news emerged of Mitsubishi Aircraft reworking its regional aircraft programme, then known as the MRJ.
Among the most significant changes was a redesign of the smaller MRJ70 into a 76-seater then known as “The Concept.”
Then, days before the show began, Mitsubishi went a step further, rebranding the MRJ as the SpaceJet, with the larger MRJ90 gaining the M90 designation.
Meanwhile, “The Concept” became the M100, a 76-seat variant that Mitsubishi Aircraft said it was pressing ahead with.
The M100 was to be purpose-built to target the US regional market’s operational constraints. So-called scope clauses between major airlines and their pilot unions largely restrict feeder carriers from operating aircraft with more than 76 seats or a maximum take-off weight exceeding 39,000kg (85,900lb).
Now, nearly a year after the fanfare, Mitsubishi Aircraft appears to have cooled on its plans for the M100.
In its full-year results, released on 11 May, parent company Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) announced funding cuts for the programme, setting an ”appropriate level of budget” for the SpaceJet.
For the year ending 31 March 2021, the budget will be halved to Y60 billion ($558 million), taking into account the impairment losses from acquiring Bombardier’s CRJ programme.
Furthermore, MHI states that it is “[reconsidering] the process of the… M100 feasibility study”, but stresses its commitment to bring the baseline M90 variant to market. It gives no further details about its plans for the M100, however.
The SpaceJet’s latest issues - which have previously included development delays and order cancellations - comes amid an ongoing shake-up of the regional jet market.
This started with Bombardier’s decision to exit the space, initially selling its CSeries programme to Airbus and then agreeing a deal with MHI for the CRJ line, a transaction which is expected to close by 1 June.
More recently, a proposed partnership between Boeing and Brazilian regional jet giant Embraer fell through after the US airframer - which has its own list of issues - bailed out.
The collapse of the Boeing-Embraer joint venture should have spelled good news for Mitsubishi Aircraft, says Teal Group aerospace analyst Richard Aboulafia, as it gives the Japanese firm better leverage to compete against the Brazilian airframer.
Calling the latest development “truly bizarre”, Aboulafia says: “What is particularly strange is that this is happening right after the collapse of the Embraer/Boeing [joint venture], which would seem to be a very positive development for the SpaceJet.”
Rob Morris, head of global consultancy at Ascend by Cirium, adds that the current coronavirus pandemic, which has led to a collapse in demand in the aviation market, is helpful for Mitsubishi, in that it allows a review of its development programme.
“It is clear that Bombardier is exiting the regional jet market [with the CRJ sale] and that leaves Embraer with a virtual monopoly,” says Morris. ”It may be a monopoly in an uncertain market, but Mitsubishi are well down the development road and thus it makes sense to continue development and use the time that the demand hiatus offers to review the development programme.”
The current uncertainty in the market could also force a relook at restrictive scope clauses that the M100 was designed to meet.
Says Morris: “Given that regional jets offer [the] lowest trip cost of any commercial jet, in a market where demand is weakened airlines may move to smaller aircraft to protect and operate thinner routes in their network. Thus, the threatened financials and weak demand environment offer airlines an opportunity for scope renegotiation and relief.”
However, these opportunities would come to naught if Mitsubishi does not seize them.
Mitsubishi, says Ascend’s Morris, has to first eliminate the “constant development delays” that have plagued the programme.
“They really need to communicate a clear programme schedule to the market which this time they will deliver. The market has become used to their continued changes and failure and this seems to me to be the last chance saloon,” says Morris.
Adds Aboulafia: “Beyond all this chaos, there’s certainly room for two modern products. Embraer is one, SpaceJet is the other, and there are zero signs of a third. That should be encouraging to [Mitsubishi], if they can take the long-term view.”
Cirium fleets data indicates there are 163 SpaceJets on order, with 124 options.