Japan's MRJ still in the hunt for firm orders

Mitsubishi Aircraft next month will start building its first MRJ regional jet, but who will its customers be?

Mitsubishi Aircraft president Hideo Egawa says the company expects 40% of sales will come from North America, 30% from Europe, 20% from Asia Pacific and the remaining 10% from the rest of the world.

US regional airline group Trans States Holdings signed a memorandum of understanding with Mitsubishi Aircraft last October for 50 MRJs with options for 50 more. But a firm contract has still yet to be signed.

The MRJ is Japan's first commercial airliner since the 1960s' NAMC YS-11. Picture: Mitsubishi Aircraft

Mitsubishi Aircraft executive vice-president Junichi Miyakawa said at the Regional Airline Association meeting in the USA in May that "we are discussing a few details of the contract", adding that he was "very confident about completion of a firm contract". But company executives decline to give a timeframe for when a firm order will be signed.

So far the only firm customer is All Nippon Airways, which in March 2008 ordered 15 MRJ90s with options for 10 more. The ANA order launched the MRJ programme and the sales contract was written in English, rather than Japanese, because it has been decades since a Japanese airline bought aircraft from a Japanese aircraft-maker.

Japan's last commercial aircraft was the NAMC YS-11, a 64-seat turboprop developed in the 1960s and still in operation. Flightglobal's MiliCAS database says the average age of Japan's YS-11 fleet is 40 years. The air force has 13 of the aircraft, the navy 10 and the coastguard three.

Mitsubishi Aircraft has a team of sales people in Tokyo dedicated to pitching the MRJ to the Japanese government. Industry sources say it is highly likely that the Japanese government will order MRJs as replacements for some of the YS-11s.

Industry sources also say the government has been examining whether to order MRJs as VIP aircraft for the prime minister and other senior government officials. A formal request for information has been issued, but the document was sent to a long list of aircraft makers, says one of the sources.

Japan's prime minister normally uses a Boeing 747-400, but MRJs would be useful for state visits to China, South Korea and Taiwan. The government could also be influential helping Mitsubishi Aircraft to sell MRJs to Japan Airlines, which went into bankruptcy protection in January and is increasingly reliant on government-backing to secure its future.

Some industry sources say Japan's government could pressure JAL into ordering MRJs. The Japanese flag carrier has stated publicly that it wants to right-size its fleet by operating smaller aircraft on domestic routes and some international routes, in an effort to achieve higher passenger loads.

"You can see that they are down-sizing to smaller aircraft so they could come out and say they are replacing Boeing 737s on some routes with MRJ90s," says an industry source, familiar with Mitsubishi Aircraft.

Mitsubishi Aircraft, meanwhile, appears to be focusing its sales efforts on the 90-seat MRJ90, rather than the 78-seat MRJ70, and is also talking about developing a 100-seat MRJ.

JAL could use MRJs to open new routes to north-east China and Taiwan. China over the next 20 years is projected to become the world's second largest market for commercial aircraft, but Mitsubishi Aircraft is unlikely to sell any aircraft there because of Japan's strained relations with China and would face stiff competition from China's own regional jet, the ARJ21.

But Taiwan is a strong sales prospect. EVA Air president Jeng Kung-yeun says the aircraft maker has approached the airline about ordering MRJs. "We are thinking about some suitable aircraft but we are still in the study and evaluation stage," he says.

EVA is studying replacements for Boeing MD-90s that its smaller sister carrier Uni Air operates domestically and on thin routes to secondary cities in Asia. Flightglobal's ACAS database says Uni Air has eight MD-90s, all built in 1996-98. Mitsubishi Aircraft has also approached EVA Air's sister company, maintenance, repair and overhaul firm Evergreen Aviation Technologies (EGAT).

Officials at the MRO company say they are in exploratory discussions about supporting the MRJ regional jet in Asia.

Taiwan is also a strong sales prospect because Evergreen Group - the parent of EVA Air and EGAT - has strong business ties with Mitsubishi.

Evergreen is one of the world's largest shipping companies and for decades it has been buying container vessels from Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. Taiwan has also won manufacturing work on the MRJ programme, with state-owned aircraft-maker AIDC designing and making slats, flaps, belly fairings, rudders and horizontal stabiliser rotating blades for the regional jet.

Mitsubishi Aircraft has also visited Papua New Guinea's national carrier Air Niugini, which plans to start phasing out its Fokker 100s in 2015. But executives at the airline believe the MRJ to be more suited to Western markets, rather than developing countries. Papua New Guinea's airports often have short runways and are in mountainous areas.

Sources at Fokker say Mitsubishi Aircraft has targeted all of the Fokker 70/100 operators in Asia as well as those in Europe and North America.

Another industry source says Mitsubishi Aircraft has been in discussions with Romania's Carpatair, although that airline decided late last year to add more Fokker 70s rather than acquire MRJs.

That leaves ANA as the only firm customer for the MRJ and that has been the case for more than two years. Who will join the Japanese carrier?

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