The regional jet manufacturers have adjusted their product development strategies despite booming sales Max Kingsley-Jones/LONDON Andrew Doyle/MUNICH

The booming regional jet market has really got into its stride, with output having surpassed that of turboprop airliners in 1999for the first time. Around 340 regional aircraft were delivered last year, of which 64% were regional jets.

This year jets will make up almost two thirds of the 420 regional aircraft expected to be produced, as manufacturers continue to boost output to cater for the massive order backlogs they have accumulated in the last 18 months.

After a flurry of new regional airliner developments in 1999, this year has seen something of a shake-out. Bombardier is talking down its proposed all-new BRJ-X project, as it moves forward with a simpler, cheaper 90-seat derivative of the CRJ. Meanwhile, Fairchild Dornier has abandoned plans to spend large sums of money on a 44-seat, rewinged 428JET derivative of the 328JET, but may instead develop a less costly simple stretch.

The decision to drop its 44-seater may well have been predicated by its rivals' moves - both Bombardier and Embraer have quickly developed 44-seat "scope-clause beater" versions of their established regional jets. While the Canadian firm has simply cut the price of its CRJ200 to create a cost effective 44-seater, Embraer has introduced yet another size of ERJ, the ERJ-140.

The tempo is picking up on the new large regional jet families with Embraer now leading the pack in development timetable terms, following more delays with the Fairchild Dornier 728JET programme. BAE Systems is still seeking a "big ticket" launch customer for its re-engined Avro RJX programme, while newcomer Alliance Aircraft is struggling to gain credibility for its ambitious 50-100 seat jet family plans in an already overcrowded market.

Over the last 12 months, Boeing has expanded the customer base for the slow selling 717. Deliveries of the McDonnell Douglas DC-9-based twinjet began last year, and as confidence in the programme grows, the development of a family of derivatives is once more on Boeing's agenda, starting with a smaller 86-seat version.

With so many propeller-driven airliners expected to be displaced from airline fleets by regional jets, efforts are already underway to ensure that these aircraft remain viable in the longer term. A number of freighter conversion programmes are being set up for current generation turboprops and the BAe ATP, ATR 42/72 and Embraer Brasilia are at the front of the queue to make the jump into the cargo arena.

Source: Flight International