NICHOLAS IONIDES ATI/SINGAPORE After their success in the USA and Europe, regional jet aircraft makers have at long last cracked two important, but untapped, markets in Asia - China and Japan.

Hainan Airlines has become China's first carrier to operate scheduled regional jet services after receiving the first of at least 19 Fairchild Aerospace 328JETs.

Hainan, based in Haikou, Hainan Island, placed its order late in August. The aircraft will be delivered through to August 2001. The carrier holds options on a further 20 of the type.

Soon after the deal was announced, Shandong Airlines ordered five Canadair Regional Jet (CRJ) Series 200s from Bombardier in a deal worth C$170 million ($116 million).

The Ji'nan-based carrier will become the first Chinese airline to operate CRJs on scheduled revenue services, although China United Airlines already operates five of the aircraft exclusively for VIP operations.

These latest deals are ground-breaking, because although China has more than 30 airlines, only a handful operate small aircraft.

A similar situation has existed in Japan until recently, when Bombardier struck a breakthrough deal to sell two CRJ-200s to Japan Airlines subsidiary J-Air and a separate deal was agreed with start-up carrier Fair.

Hiroshima-based J-Air will take delivery of the 50-seat CRJ-200s next November and in March 2001, putting both into service on its 12-point route network in April 2001.

Fair president and chief executive Jun Okawara says services with his CRJs will begin in the middle of this year. Four will be operated - two Series 100 variants bought from Lauda Air and two Series 200 aircraft purchased directly from Bombardier.

The first ex-Lauda aircraft will be delivered in May, followed by the second in November or December. The aircraft from Bombardier will be delivered in May and June 2002.

Fair proposes initial services between its Sendai operating base and Hiroshima's Nishi Airport and between Nishi and Tokyo's Haneda Airport - provided slots can be secured.

Okawara last year launched Skymark Airlines as Japan's first newly owned carrier in more than 30 years. He left Skymark, which is financially backed by discount air ticket broker HIS, to set up his own airline, commenting: "Before I started Skymark, my original business plan was just like the Fair project."

Okawara expects Japan's phased deregulation to lead to the operation of more regional jets, adding that he is "quite sure the same kind of phenomenon" seen in the USA will spread to Japan.

Source: Airline Business