The 100-seat airliner market debate was freshly stirred at Asian Aerospace 2000 as the regional aircraft manufacturers showed themselves to be ever more confident about their prospects in this controversial sector.

In a far cry from two years ago, when the regional manufacturers insisted that they would not risk a head-to-head fight with Airbus and Boeing by entering the100-seat market, Bombardier and Fairchild Aerospace appeared bullish about their chances, while Embraer exhibited a cabin mock-up of its planned RJ-90, for which there will be a 100-seater version.

The loudest war cries come from Fairchild, which is weighing up whether to advance development of a 50-seat 528JET regional jet or a larger version of its 100-seat 928JET. The company insists that it has not reached a conclusion, but the large jet clearly has a lead.

Executive vice-president Barry Eccleston says: "My original objective was not to go head-to-head with Airbus and Boeing, but the airlines brought us to the marketplace. The airlines look at the 928JET and say the economics are very, very good."

With that encouragement, Fairchild hopes not only to announce a launch customer for the 928JET this year, but also to chalk up a significant order from a major US carrier.

"As we design the 928JET, we are protecting the ability to grow," says Eccleston, who adds that Fairchild wants to secure 40% of the 100-seater market over the next 20 years. As the importance of this market sector grows, the company is concentrating on building a senior management team with "heavy metal" experience - people from major carriers or large airliner/engine manufacturers - and on rapidly building a worldwide customer support system. To that end, it has forged relationships with companies like General Electricand Lufthansa Technik.

Bombardier, meanwhile, says its launch of the 90-seat CRJ900 is imminent. The Canadian company has begun development of this CRJ700 derivative and expects programme launch during the first quarter of 2000 and deliveries to begin in the fourth quarter of 2002. But it will be quickly followed by a new family, the BRJ-X programme, aimed primarily at the major carriers. The 110-seat BRJ-X-110 is set for launch approval during the fourth quarter this year, with first deliveries in late 2004. Like Fairchild, Bombardier is known to be in talks with major carriers, including US airlines.

Still, the regional manufacturers cannot expect to move into unguarded territory. Airbus continues to see A318 sales and Boeing is increasingly determined to establish its 717 in the same marketplace. Boeing has launched a study of the 70-100-seat market and, as a result, may develop a family around the 717 that would include a 70-seater, 80-seater and 110-seater.

Even though the 100-seat market has many sceptics, much of the current excitement seems to focus on the fact that US major carriers are becoming increasingly meshed with their regional affiliates. Delta Air Lines, for example, has acquired Comair and Atlantic Southeast Airlines and is believed to be looking to fill the gap between the 70-seaters that its regional subsidiaries can operate within pilot union scope clauses and the 120-seaters at the bottom of its mainline operation. Among aircraft manufacturers, however, the winner in the battle to bridge that gap has yet to emerge.

Source: Airline Business