History will decide whether 2009 will represent one of the watersheds that occurs in civil aviation every decade or so.
In 1992, it was the arrival of the 50-seat Bombardier CRJ that triggered a new order in the sub-100-seat sector - it is a sobering thought that beyond Bombardier, just two of the protagonists from that year remain players today - Embraer and ATR.
Will the "step-change" economics that Pratt & Whitney's PW1000G geared turbofan promises give Mitsubishi Aircraft's MRJ (and at the top end, Bombardier's CSeries) the ability to create a new world order in the regional sector? And could it prompt chain reactions from existing players such as Embraer?
Time will tell, but the announcement by US regional Trans States Airlines of a deal for 100 aircraft, which followed the revelation a few weeks before that Mitsubishi had redesigned the twinjet to appeal more to the global market, certainly suggests it is off to a good start.
© Mitsubishi Aircraft
Although the 70- to 100-seat MRJ is perceived by some as a "national project", in the same way that China's Comac ARJ21 and Russia's Sukhoi Superjet 100 are, it does offer the potential to become a next-generation airliner in its segment. Trans Sates vice-president of scheduling Fred Oxley describes the MRJ as more of a green aircraft than its rivals, in terms of noise and emissions.
Until now, the Japanese twinjet has struggled to accrue any interest beyond its launch order from All Nippon Airways in March 2008, but Mitsubishi's extensive redesign and proposed addition of a stretched 100-seat variant has sparked new potential.
Key changes to the aircraft include a revised fuselage cross-section to boost cabin height, a switch to aluminium rather than carbonfibre composites for the wing, and an enlarged aft cargo compartment, with the forward cargo hold eliminated.
The regional jet's only remaining composite components will be the empennage, fin and tailplane, which amounts to 10-15% of the total airframe.
The revised wing structure was adopted because it will allow shorter lead-times, says the airframer: "With an aluminium wing box, the wing structure can be more easily optimised for the MRJ70/90 and the stretched model, which enhances the overall competitiveness of the MRJ family."
The changes are necessary to ensure the company comes up with a competitive regional jet, says Mitsubishi. They were implemented after discussions with potential customers in Europe and the USA and have pushed back the design freeze to mid-2010 from the thirdquarter of 2009. This in turn has delayed first flight and deliveries by a similar amount to the second quarter of 2012 and first quarter of 2014, respectively.
Any move on the 100-seater "is subject to demand and business case," says Mitsubishi.
RUSSIA AND CHINA
Over in Russia, the Superjet 100's flight-testing has been gathering momentum, but any likelihood of a 2009 first delivery evaporated at the Moscow MAKS air show in August. Three Superjets are in flighttest, the most recent of which joined the programme on 25 July (aircraft 95004).
Deliveries to launch customer Aeroflot had been scheduled to begin in December, but they will not now start until 2010. However, United Aircraft's chief said at the show that he was confident the 95-seat twinjet's domestic certification programme would be concluded this year.
Two important international deals were announced at the Paris air show in June. Hungarian flag carrier Malev signed a letter of intent for up to 30 aircraft, while Spanish operator Gadair European Airlines agreed to acquire up to four aircraft.
Although the Malev carrier is partnered with Aeroflot, it insists that the Russian airline did not influence its selection of the Superjet 100. Deliveries are due to begin in the second half of 2011.
Work continues on a planned 115-seat Superjet stretch, with Alessandro Franzoni, chief executive of Sukhoi/Alenia marketing arm Superjet International, saying at this year's US Regional Airline Association convention that the company"hopes to be able to make an announcement soon".
China's indigenous regional jet, the ARJ21, is progressing through its flight-test programme following the first flight of the prototype on 28 November 2008.
The second ARJ21-700 joined the programme in July, taking off from the plant at Dachang, Shanghai, where the 78- to 90-seat General Electric CF34-10 powered twinjet is being assembled.
One of the ARJ21s was subsequently flown to the country's national flight-test centre outside Xian for tests. Deliveries to launch operator Kunpeng Airlines are due to begin in late 2010 following Chinese certification.
Canada's Bombardier aims to hand over the first example of its latest CRJ iteration - the 100-seat CRJ1000 - during the first quarter of next year. The CRJ1000 prototype, which was created by stretching a CRJ900 airframe, was joined in the flight-test programme by the first production aircraft in July.
The CRJ1000 programme has suffered a couple of setbacks this year, the first being the revelation that deliveries would start a little later than scheduled because of a "software glitch", and the second being the loss of some orders because of airline failures.
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According to Bombardier Aerospace president Guy Hachey, the glitch has been rectified but has set the programme "back a little bit".
The first CRJ1000 was due to be handed over in January, but Bombardier says the target is now to complete the aircraft before the end of its fiscal first quarter(30 April 2010).
The CRJ1000 backlog was afflicted by the termination of MyAir's order for 15 aircraft, after the Italian low-fares carrier's operating certificate was formally suspended in July by Italian civil aviation authority ENAC.
A fall in near-term demand for the regional jet types has put production rates under pressure, with Bombardier evaluating what level of reduction it should implement.
The Canadian airframer said in April it would reduce CRJ production in the latter part of the year to adjust for a slowing of new orders and deferral requests.
With its backlog diminishing and uncertainty over a CRJ900 order earmarked for Iraq - due to a legal case involving Kuwait Airways - cuts to the programme are expected to be revealed imminently.
Although deliveries of Bombardier and Embraer large regional jets during the first six months of this year declined slightly compared with the same period last year - from 103 to 94 - orders have collapsed. In the first half of 2008, 122 net orders were placed, compared with just six this year (excluding CSeries). The result is that in the last year, the CRJ/Embraer E-Jet backlog has declined by 25% to 440 aircraft at the end of the first half.
The manufacturers have suffered two problems this year, being affected not just by a substantial fall in new orders, but also the issue of order cancellations resulting from airline cutbacks or failures.
Among Embraer's 2009 deliveries was its 600th E-Jet - an E-175 for LOT Polish Airlines. The all-new, 70- to 120-seat twinjet has established itself as a market leader, and the larger family members will receive a small performance boost in the next year through a enhancement to their GE CF34-10E engine.
GE says that the E-190/195 will benefit from a 1% fuel consumption improvement after achieving an initial 1.6% gain introduced since entry-into-service three years ago.
But Embraer is evaluating potentially more dramatic developments as it considers how to respond to threats from the MRJ at the lower end of the E-Jet range and the CSeries at the top end.
It is also eyeing a potential opportunity to attack Airbus and Boeing as the two airframers decide against any early move to develop all-new single-aisles.
The Brazilian airframer is looking at re-entering the turboprop market as well as developing an aircraft larger than the E-195, but Asia Pacific managing director Alex Glock said in September that"entering into a larger market without understanding what Airbus and Boeing are doing would be suicidal".
He also says engine technology will be important to Embraer's decision and that it is looking at different engine technologies including the GTF.
Embraer confirms, with clean-sheet design under study that would need a new-generation engine, it has been in talks with GE, Rolls-Royce and P&W about powerplants.
The airframer's executive vice president airline market Mauro Kern says airframe technology is another big consideration, but he thinks it is too early to determine whether a new aircraft would have to mimic the CSeries with a carbonfibre wing, and the A350/787 with a composite fuselage. A decision onis expected within the next 18 to 24 months.
Source: Flight International