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ANALYSIS: MRJ attempts rebound with new schedule and strategy

Beyond the walls of Mitsubishi Aircraft offices in Nagoya and Seattle, a steady stream of ominous events have followed what the Mitsubishi Regional Jet (MRJ) programme describes as that “dark, dark day” on 23 January 2017, when the company was forced to announce a fifth delay for the entry-into-service of the MRJ90.

During the proceeding 17 months, one major competitor has delivered the MRJ’s most significant competitor – the Embraer E-Jet E2 family – to an airline, US airlines have become even less likely to gain the scope clause relief that once defined the marketing plan for the MRJ90 and, finally, Airbus and Boeing have started pursuing partnerships with Mitsubishi’s competitors in the regional jet market.

Despite all of those events, the mood in Mitsubishi’s offices on the southern outskirts of Seattle feels light. Alex Bellamy, the MRJ programme manager installed two years ago, does not seem defensive or concerned about Mitsubishi’s position in the market, even though the MRJ90 remains two years away from an entry-into-service milestone originally scheduled in 2014.

Airbus plans to finalise a deal with Bombardier to take control of the CSeries programme by mid-year. Boeing is in advanced discussions with Embraer and the Brazilian government on a “potential combination” with the Sao Jose dos Campos-based aircraft manufacturer. The situation could put the MRJ in a direct competition with Boeing. Asked if such a development imperils the competitiveness of an independent regional jet manufacturer, Bellamy acknowledges the question, but insists it’s not Mitsubishi’s focus at that moment.

“I think it’s an excellent long-term question. For now, from where we stand, we have to focus on making the best product, and what will happen in the future will become apparent,” Bellamy says.

“For me, personally”, he adds, “and the team that works for me, our focus is on don’t worry too much about the externals, keep your focus on delivering this aircraft on time. That’s really all we can do and is in our control at this time.”

That internal focus has led to a thorough schedule overhaul over the last 17 months, followed by a sweeping internal re-organisation and a new emphasis placed on the MRJ’s smallest variant.

The announced delay in January 2017 exposed flaws with the design of the MRJ’s wiring and avionics systems, but it wasn’t the only problem. The MRJ90 is designed with a maximum take-off weight of 39,600kg (87,303lb), or slightly over the scope clause-imposed limit of 39,000kg for US regional carriers. That means SkyWest and Trans States Holdings, which combined account for 67% of the 223 firm orders for the MRJ90, have no place for the next-generation 76-seater in their fleets.

Within the last several weeks, Mitsubishi has made the decision to launch development of the 69-seat MRJ70, Bellamy says, although the first task might first be a need to convert SkyWest’s 100-aircraft order and Trans States’ deal for 50 from the MRJ90. Both carriers have contracts for the MRJ90 with options to convert the orders to the MRJ70, he adds.

“The MRJ70 is the product for the United States market,” Bellamy says, adding, “and it’s going to be a killer product, we think.”

Indeed, the MRJ70 shares all of the same technology – Pratt & Whitney PW1200G geared turbofans, fly-by-wire flight controls and an advanced wing design – with the MRJ90. It suffers only from a fuselage 1.4m shorter than the 76-seat version. Mitsubishi advertises the MRJ70 with 76 seats in a single-class lay-out with each of the 19 rows separated by 31in. US carriers, however, usually favour operating 76-seats in two classes. Mitsubishi offers the MRJ70 in a standard, two-class layout with nine business class seats with a 36in pitch and 60 economy-class seats with only a 30in pitch.

In a future regional market without scope clause relief, the MRJ70 is likely compete with two 76-seat products with a two-class layout: the original version of the E175 and the Bombardier CRJ900. With newer engines and other technology advances, Mitsubishi’s MRJ70 should be more fuel efficient in absolute terms, but it may have fewer seats, thus potentially eroding any advantage on the cost per available seat mile compared to the Embraer and Bombardier alternatives.

Aware of that competitive problem, Bellamy is already working on a solution. An engineering team within Mitsubishi is analysing options for increasing the number of seats within the MRJ70, without changing the exterior dimensions or sacrificing performance.

Meanwhile, the company is looking at re-assigning production slots from the MRJ90 in the short-term to start building more flight test vehicles for the MRJ70, Bellamy says. The first two MRJ70 test aircraft – the eighth and ninth MRJs to enter final assembly – are in the Nagoya factory. The goal now is to be ready to deliver the first MRJ70 to a customer by the end of 2021, or only a year after the entry-into-service of the MRJ90.

“We have to be a little aggressive in our targeting because the market is the market,” Bellamy says.

Mitsubishi approved the acceleration plan for the MRJ70 within the last few weeks, he adds. But the go-ahead decision only came after the MRJ90 team got back on track after several years of missed deadlines, design mistakes and flaws in the Japanese-run certification process.

Bellamy joined Mitsubishi to manage the MRJ programme in March 2016 immediately after helping to guide the Bombardier CSeries aircraft family through type certification. By October 2016, it had become clear that certain aspects of the MRJ design did not comply with certification requirements, so Bellamy called in a team of engineering auditors from Seattle-based firm AeroTec. Three months later, Mitsubishi announced a two-year delay for entry-into-service to redesign the wiring and the location of critical avionics systems.

Meanwhile, Bellamy re-organised the MRJ management structure. In 2017, the management of the MRJ was divided into functional areas, such as engineering, supply chain management and customer service. The team has since re-organised into 20 integrated product teams, with each IPT leader given responsibility for all aspects of their assignment.

“We’ve taken an orginisation where maybe the problem was engineering and it had to go across to supply chain and then it had to go to customer support and maybe that took a significant period of time to transition through the heirarchy – the ups and the downs – to the point now where we’ve got a 24h turn-around on a problem,” Bellamy says.

As the new structure has started hitting deadlines and solving problems faster, confidence grew in the MRJ programme’s ability to rapidly introduce the MRJ70 a year after certificating the MRJ90.

“We’re hitting the numbers,” Bellamy says. “They feel comfortable now that we’re able to move on to the next thing.”

The first MRJ90 flight test aircraft have checked off all of the most extreme areas of the flight envelope, including speed, altitude and operating temperature on the ground.

Meanwhile, the last stages of final assembly will soon begin on Aircraft 10, which will be the first MRJ90 to be built with the new avionics and wiring design. The new wiring bundles supplied by Latecoere Interconnection Systems had arrived on the receiving dock at the Nagoya factory by mid-May, Bellamy says. Aircraft 10 will be used to validate certification test points related to wiring and avionics systems, including high intensity radiated field testing, environmental control systems and human factors. In the final stages of certification, Aircraft 10 will be joined with a completed Aircraft 7, which will be devoted to functional and reliability testing.

“We’ve now got a really solid basis for a schedule,” Bellamy says. “The good news for me is we’re still tracking to 2020.”

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