Regional jet specialist MHI RJ Aviation Group (MHIRJ) sees a long future for the Bombardier CRJ regional jet, but warns about a pilot and maintainer crunch facing the industry.
A wholly owned unit of Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Quebec-based MHIRJ derives the bulk of its revenue from MRO work related to CRJs. It also has an Aerospace Engineering Center and offers Advisory Services.
Ross Mitchell, MHIRJ’s vice president of strategy and business development, notes that the company has 30 maintenance lines, which makes it the world’s biggest MRO provider for regional aircraft.
And given the company’s background as part of Bombardier – MHI acquired the CRJ programme in 2020 – Mitchell, speaking with FlightGlobal at the recent Farnborough Airshow, says the unit offers unique capabilities typically found only at the big airframers.
Cirium fleets data indicates that there are 1,170 CRJs in service, with 465 in storage. The dominant types are the 50-seat CRJ200, with nearly 400 examples in airline service, and CRJ900, with nearly 420. The majority of these jets are operated on North American regional routes by carriers owned by or affiliated with the top three US carriers: American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and United Airlines.
Although the CRJ is out of production, Mitchell says it is a crucial element for airline operations in North America, providing feed into hubs. Moreover, there is no new aircraft that complies with scope-clause requirements in pilot contracts. Scope-clause agreements effectively limit the maximum take-off weight of the aircraft used for regional operations.
“They can continue on for another couple of decades easily,” says Mitchell of the CRJ fleet. “There’s nothing on the horizon really to replace those airplanes.”
He observes that the developmental Embraer E175-E2 does not meet scope-clause limits. Indeed, in February the Brazilian manufacturer paused development of the type for three years, and it won’t enter service before 2027.
He adds that the CRJ also has far lower ownership costs – given that they are largely paid down – compared with obtaining a new aircraft.
“You might as well run [CRJs] because the next airplane you bring in doesn’t give you any benefits economically, and has higher ownership costs,” he says. “We’re a key part of the value chain to ensure that those airplanes continue flying into the future – and the customers do want them to continue flying.”
On whether turboprops can supplant the CRJ, Mitchell says they don’t fit well with the hub-and-spoke networks favoured by the big carriers. Moreover, the US market is not terribly receptive to turboprops, in that passengers, he feels, prefer jets. He adds that the turboprops lack the speed to keep up with hub schedules.
Despite MHIRJ’s strong position in the CRJ market, Mitchell stresses that the company is always looking for new opportunities. On the MRO front, the company’s new hangar in West Virginia will be big enough to accommodate both CRJs and larger aircraft should the company venture into supporting other types.
MHIRJ is also looking to the long-term future of the CRJ, with an announcement in October 2021 that it will co-operate with experimental propulsion specialist ZeroAvia on the potential of hydrogen-electric power for regional jets.
Under the arrangement, MHIRJ provides design, engineering and certification services to ZeroAvia, supporting not only the development of new aircraft using the powertrain technology but also the “green retrofit” potential.
On the challenges front, Mitchell indicates that a shortage of pilots and maintainers is a big issue for the regional jet market. At the outset of the pandemic, he says, the big airlines offered retirement packages to pilots. Now that the sector is recovering, airlines are bringing up regional jet captains to operate larger aircraft.
Given that the USA requires first officers to have 1,500h before sitting down in the right-hand seat, and captains need 1,000h beyond this, an imbalance is created between the number of first officers and captains. This creates training challenges and also makes it hard to bring people in.
“The 1,500h rule had an impact even back before Covid, and Covid has exacerbated it,” says Mitchell. “Policy changes need to be made… and the industry needs to find ways of funding that resource because it’s created an issue that has become acute in the last few months.”
Mitchell also observes that the USA’s pool of maintenance personnel is ageing.
“There desperately needs to be some funding there as well, and larger training programmes, because the average maintenance technician is very close to retirement age now, and the new maintenance technicians coming into the industry aren’t sufficient to replace those going out.”
To help alleviate this issue, MHIRJ promotes aviation careers to young people. MHIRJ is also eager to get more women joining the industry, either as maintainers or pilots. On the company’s strategic priorities, Mitchell says that the number one item is, indeed, the work force issue.