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A joint government-private sector project is under way to develop passenger jets with the ultimate goal of commercial production.

The project is effectively the first attempt in more than four decades to fly a Japan-made passenger aircraft to crack into the world’s commercial aircraft market long dominated by Boeing Co. and Airbus SAS.

Still, those involved in the project say actual commercial production, if realized, is years away.

“We are considering matters in the direction toward making it a business, but we haven’t made any actual decision on commercial production,” said Hiroyuki Yamakado, spokesman of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. “We would like to watch market prospects cautiously.”

MHI is a primary contractor in the project sponsored by government-affiliated New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization.

MHI said it is conducting marketing research to determine the demand for the regional jets it is developing. But the current situation is not encouraging enough to decide now on a commercial launch.

The 50 billion yen project, shouldered equally by MHI and NEDO, aims to develop a 30- to 50-seat regional jet, a class of aircraft that faces relatively small competition in the world market.

MHI officials said a team of engineers has been working on the project, dubbed MJ (Mitsubishi Jet), at its aerospace facilities in Nagoya since June 2003. The firm said they are currently in the phase of making conceptual designs.

If commercially produced, the aircraft would be the first Japan-made passenger jet.

The country’s aircraft industry was banned after World War II, as part of the occupation forces’ policy to demilitarize the country.

Out of work, many talented aircraft engineers moved to the then-budding auto industry, where they played a significant role in making Japanese cars among the most competitive in the world.

But for the country’s aircraft makers, the seven-year ban was too long when the world’s industry was making rapid technological advancements. And attempts to develop and sell Japan-made passenger aircraft have since been mostly ill-fated.

The YS-11, the 60- to 64-seat turboprop developed under a joint government-private sector project, is the only aircraft that made it to commercial production. Development began in 1959 with a budget of 5.7 billion yen.

Commercial production started in 1962, but it was terminated a little more than a decade later after 182 were built. The money-losing enterprise was not able to secure a market large enough to support itself.

To avoid the same failure, its successor project, dubbed the YX, was merged into a Boeing project that eventually became the Boeing 767.

Since then, Mitsubishi and other Japanese aerospace makers have participated in development of Boeing’s successor models.

For the Boeing 787, Japanese companies will be supplying some 35 percent of the airframe, with MHI becoming the first manufacturer to create a wing box for a Boeing aircraft.

Still, many in the industry still dream of producing Japan-made commercial jets.

“Today, we are just great suppliers. You have to be a maker of an entire airplane if you want full-fledged status in the aircraft industry,” one industry official said.

From the view of keeping the country’s technological competitive edge, it is important to develop an entire plane, said officials of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.

“By nature, the aerospace industry produces a lot of useful technological applications to other industries,” an official said. “So, it is important to have makers that manufacture airplanes.”

For MHI, little time is left for the development of passenger jets.

“The last plane we developed was the MU-300,” said Yamakado, referring to a small private jet produced in the 1980s.

The company fears technological knowhow and other experience necessary for developing an aircraft from scratch will not be passed on to younger generations as those who have them are nearing retirement.

“The engineering manager for the MU-300 was Takashi Nishioka, chairman of our company,” Yamakado said.

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