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PARIS AIR SHOW: Mitsubishi upbeat about MRJ despite lack of orders

Mitsubishi Aircraft remains confident about the prospects for its new MRJ regional jet, even though it has not had any new orders since the aircraft's launch in March 2008 and as airlines tighten budgets as the global economic crisis bites.

The first MRJ is due to enter service in 2013 with All Nippon Airways, which ordered 15 aircraft with 10 options. Mitsubishi Aircraft, a subsidiary of Japanese aerospace major Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, says that it is pushing the aircraft's strengths to potential customers, and it is to meet several of them in Paris.

"We want everyone to know that the MRJ is about applying advanced mainline jet technology to create a new standard for next-generation regional jets, offering unprecedented value for the environment, passengers, and airlines," it says. "The MRJ is not designed for long-haul intercontinental flights. It is, however, well-suited for regional networks with a range of 2,000-3,000km [1,080-1,620nm]."

 Mitsubishi MRJ
 © Mitsubishi

There are two versions of the aircraft - the MRJ-70 and MRJ-90 - that marks Japan's return to the passenger aircraft manufacturing business after 30 years. These have sufficient range to cover all of Europe from Paris, all of North America from Chicago, and Shanghai, Hong Kong and all of Japan from Tokyo's Haneda airport, says the company.

Much of the technical expertise for the MRJ comes from MHI, which has a 64% stake in the company. MHI has had decades of experience licence-producing foreign military aircraft and is a Tier-1 supplier for Boeing. It is also a key partner in Boeing's 787 programme, allowing it to gain expertise in manufacturing composite components.

SHAREHOLDERS

Other shareholders include MHI's holding company Mitsubishi Corporation [10%], car manufacturer Toyota [10%], trading firms Sumitomo and Mitsui with 5% each, and the Development Bank of Japan with 1%. Japanese companies Mitsubishi Rayon, Mitsubishi Electric, JGC Corp and Tokio Marine Nichido own the remaining 5%.

The company is also tapping on the expertise of other companies, both Japanese and foreign, to help with the programme. Taiwan's Aerospace Industrial Development Corporation (AIDC), for example, will design and manufacture parts for slats, flaps, belly fairings, rudders and horizontal stabiliser rotating blades for the MRJ. Boeing, Fuji Heavy Industries and Saab are all other potential partners.

Suppliers include Pratt & Whitney, whose PW1000G geared turbo fan engine will power the aircraft. Rockwell Collins will provide its Pro Line Fusion avionics system and Hamilton Sundstrand the electric power systems, air management system, auxiliary power unit, inert gas system, high-lift actuation system and fire and overheat protection system. Parker Aerospace will supply hydraulic systems, Nabtesco the flight-control system and Sumitomo Precision the landing gear.

GLOBAL PARTNERSHIPS

By forming global partnerships and leveraging on its experience in the industry, Mitsubishi could develop an extremely successful product, says Richard Aboulafia, vice-president for analysis at the Teal Group. "Japan has developed a superb aerospace industrial base and a first-rate status as a major industry partner. Numerous partnerships have allowed Japan to develop myriad skills and to avoid the risks associated with a single aircraft."

Nevertheless, the global economic crisis could not have come at a worse time. Airlines are deferring orders and putting off new ones until the situation becomes clearer, but Mitsubishi is not putting it off marketing efforts.

"We are in discussions, some at a very advanced stage, with a number of potential customers around the world," it says. "Our goals in Paris are to maintain and increase the momentum that we have achieved since launching our programme. This momentum refers to our progress pushing ahead in discussions with customers and securing orders, as well as enhancing the profile of the MRJ within the industry - both of which are areas that we are excited to pursue in Paris."

In Paris, the company has a cabin mock-up that will allow its marketing team to demonstrate to customers what the completed aircraft will look like. They will also have a "3-D chalet" with a huge screen that is the size of the cabin. "A lot of our potential customers, especially those from Europe, will be able experience for themselves what the MRJ will look and feel like when it flies," says the company.

Mitsubishi's first target is to sell 300 aircraft, which marks the programme's financial break-even point, and the company says that it is prepared to manufacture the aircraft for 20 years. It will be a challenge to reach that, especially in the current climate.

ORDERS

Japan's ANA does not plan to order any more aircraft beyond the 25 it has in the pipeline. Japan Airlines could come on board, but a decision is not imminent as it has ordered 10 Embraer 170s to take advantage of the expansion of Haneda in 2010.

China could be a tough market, given that domestic carriers may be under pressure to order the locally-developed Comac ARJ-21. Opening up China-Taiwan cross-straits flights may bring interest from Taiwanese carriers and some smaller independent Chinese airlines. Beyond China, however, the MRJ could be competitive almost everywhere.

The marketing plays on the MRJ's strengths - its eco-friendly tag, the comforts that it offers passengers, and its low operating costs. These, says the company, marks it out from competing products offered by established players like Canada's Bombardier and Brazil's Embraer and newer aircraft like Russia's Sukhoi Superjet and the ARJ-21.

"Eco-friendly aircraft are extremely important given the increased public environmental consciousness. It is anticipated that emissions regulations will become increasingly strict, especially in Europe where environmental awareness is very high," says Mitsubishi. "The MRJ's levels of carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions are significantly lower than those of competitors' aircraft. Recognising that aircraft noise has negative effects on society, the MRJ noise level is 10 decibels less than that of its competitors, a great advantage for take-offs and landings in airports."

It also promises passengers a "safe and outstandingly comfortable" flight on board the aircraft". "A new slim and robust seat using a three-dimensional net fabric has been used to provide enhanced passenger comfort. The prototype seat was exhibited at the Farnborough air show last July and was well received by the world's airlines. In addition, the MRJ has ample head and foot clearance, and large overhead luggage bins to provide a comfortable and practical cabin area for passengers," it says

The company adds that the MRJ is designed to help carriers cope with high operating costs by using lighter composite materials and a fuel-efficient engine. "Every airline wants economical aircraft with efficient engines and low air resistance. With thePW1000G engines' low fuel consumption, the MRJ is a landmark aircraft in regional-class aircraft, with 20% lower fuel consumption than its competitors."

The conceptual design is over and Mitsubishi is working with engineers from domestic and overseas suppliers in Nagoya to complete the detailed design by the third quarter of this year. It applied for a type certificate with the Japan Civil Aviation Bureau in October 2007, and plans to apply to the US Federal Aviation Administration and the European Aviation Safety Agency.

PROGRESS

"We are excited about the progress we are seeing as we prepare to finalise the design and move to the manufacturing phase with the MRJ," says the company. "We are convinced it will help redefine the regional jet industry in terms of value - value for passengers, airlines and the environment."

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