Dawn of a new era for Japan's aviation industry with MRJ debut flight

Bloomberg, Kyodo, AP

Mitsubishi Aircraft Corp.’s new jet took off on its debut flight from Nagoya airport in central Japan, half a century after the country last introduced a new passenger plane.

The Mitsubishi Regional Jet, which can seat up to 92 passengers, took off at 9:35 a.m. Wednesday with two pilots in the cockpit. It flew over the Pacific coast and returned to the airport almost 90 minutes later. A round of applause rang out when the plane landed at 11:02 a.m.

“We have to conduct some checkups, but I think (the flight) was enormously successful,” Hideaki Omiya, chairman of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd., told reporters.

Mitsubishi Heavy, which built the renowned World War II-era Zero fighter, is a parent company of Mitsubishi Aircraft.

Mitsubishi Heavy and other major Japanese manufacturers are key suppliers for many aircraft parts and systems. But a large share of the jet’s components came from leading foreign suppliers.

Mitsubishi Aircraft, which has delayed the MRJ’s expected delivery date three times, tapped bullet train specialists to ensure the plane was completed. The launch will intensify competition for orders with Brazil’s Embraer SA and Canada’s Bombardier Inc.

“The MRJ has a lot of potential,” said Dan Lu, an analyst at JPMorgan Securities Japan Co. in Tokyo.”I expect demand for regional jets to increase as more people fly and airlines put smaller jets on some routes.”

The white jet with “MRJ” written on its tail took off Wednesday into a blue sky with a few clouds, on a brisk fall day with a light wind. About 200 members of the press milled about as helicopters hovered in the air a few hundred meters from the runway.

The subsidiary of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. hopes the MRJ can break the virtual lock that Embraer and Bombardier have on the market for passenger jets with fewer than 100 seats. Boeing Co. and Airbus Group SE control the market for larger passenger planes.

With Montreal-based Bombardier focusing on its larger C-Series jets, which can carry as many as 160 passengers, Mitsubishi Aircraft sees an opening it could fill.

The company has won 407 orders, including options and purchase rights, for two versions of the MRJ, which can seat from 78 to 92 passengers.

The jetliner has a range of around 3,800 kilometers, allowing it to fly routes such as Tokyo to Shanghai or Taipei.

The development of the MRJ, which began a decade ago, has boosted hopes for growth of the country’s manufacturing industries, as the airplane requires millions of parts.

The government also lauded the plane’s maiden flight.

“It is the dawn of a new era for Japan’s aviation industry,” Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Motoo Hayashi said in a statement. “It will drive Japan’s growth.”

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference that the government will help promote the MRJ abroad.

Analysts are upbeat about the plane’s prospects.

“In our forecasts we have the MRJ replacing Bombardier as the second-biggest regional jet supplier,” said Rob Morris, head of consultancy at Ascend Flightglobal Consultancy.

Japan’s last homegrown passenger plane was the YS-11, a turboprop made by Nihon Aircraft Manufacturing Corp., a consortium that included Mitsubishi Heavy, Kawasaki Heavy Industries Ltd. and Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd. Only 182 of the planes were sold.

Nihon Aircraft stopped the YS-11 production line in 1974, a dozen years after its rollout. The company disbanded in 1983 with debts of about ¥36 billion ($292.4 million), according to the Asahi Shimbun newspaper.

Tetsu Sakai, 55, a pilot at ANA Holdings Inc. who flew the YS-11 for 14 years before it was retired, now is anticipating delivery of the MRJ.

“I look forward to Mitsubishi using the most of Japan’s engineering technology and building a good plane,” he said.

Mitsubishi Aircraft estimates the cost of developing the MRJ will be about ¥180 billion. The 92-seat MRJ90 is selling at a list price of $47.3 million, according to the company.

The MRJ will use a geared turbofan engine built by United Technologies Corp.’s Pratt & Whitney unit, which is expected to make the jets at least 20 percent more fuel efficient than similar aircraft, the company has said.

The two biggest customers for the MRJ are SkyWest Inc. and Trans States Airlines Inc. in North America. Domestically, Mitsubishi Aircraft has won orders from Japan Airlines Co. in addition to ANA, the nation’s biggest carrier.