Emma Kelly/LONDON

BAE Systems hopes to announce the launch airline for its RJX regional jet family in the next three weeks following the formal launch of the Avro RJ derivative on 21 March.

Peter Connolly, BAE Systems senior vice-president for sales and marketing, says an order for the RJX has been signed, with a second at the final negotiation stage. He declines to comment on the numbers of aircraft involved.

The BAE board required to be "convinced of the technical and commercial case" before the launch, says Connolly. He says the technical side was "easy to get through", especially as the aircraft is powered by the new 7,000lb-thrust (30kN) Honeywell AS977 turbofan, while the business case - based on annual production of 18 RJXs - is good. BAE and Honeywell are investing $100 million in the RJX programme. "The difficult side is seeing how the market will develop," he says.

BAE expects Avro RJ operators to move to RJX series aircraft, although it believes "a lot of life" is left in the RJs. Avro RJ operators include Aer Lingus, Air Wisconsin, British Airways' London Gatwick-based subsidiary CityFlyer Express and Lufthansa.

CityFlyer is believed to be a leading contender for a launch order, although this could be delayed by the departure of BA chief executive Bob Ayling and the uncertainty surrounding the airline's ambitions to reorganise its London Gatwick operations - a move likely to benefit CityFlyer.

The 70-110-seat RJX family - the RJX-70, -85 and -100 - are to enter service in September 2001. Two test aircraft - an RJX-85 and -100 - are on the final assembly line in preparation for flight in the fourth quarter of this year.

BAE has decided to expand the RJX flight test programme "to offer more extensive performance capabilities" for early RJX deliveries, including high-altitude operations. That has led to speculation that a "hot and high" customer may be among the launch candidates.

The remaining number of Avro RJs to be built is not finalised. BAE is reviewing the transition to the RJX, which will provide a 10-15% fuel consumption reduction, a 20% maintenance cost improvement, a 225kg (500lb) empty weight reduction and up to 17% range improvement on the Avro RJ, the manufacturer says.

Source: Flight International