The Mitsubishi Regional Jet is back in the spotlight after flights to the United States were canceled last month because of problems with the air-conditioning system.
The MRJ has been delayed four times so far. With hopes for a manufacturing revival resting on Japan’s first domestically made plane since 1974, what are its prospects for success?
Here are some questions and answers about the quest to produce the MRJ.
How did the MRJ project begin?
It all started in 2002, when the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry proposed the idea of making a small, environmentally friendly passenger plane. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries decided to take on the project.
Japan is no stranger to making fighter jets, but this essentially represented the first domestic attempt to produce a commercial plane since the YS-11, a turboprop made by Nihon Aircraft Manufacturing Corp. that was halted in 1974. Nihon Aircraft was a consortium comprising MHI, Kawasaki Heavy Industries Ltd. and Fuji Heavy Industries.
Since then, Japanese companies have been making parts in conjunction with major plane makers such as Boeing Co. and Airbus Group SE.
MHI and KHI, for example, are both so-called tier 1 suppliers for the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, providing the primary wings and forward fuselages, respectively.
The tier 1 contractors are positioned directly under the plane makers themselves in the supply chain framework.
Why does Mitsubishi Heavy want to make jets?
Mitsubishi Aircraft Corp., a Nagoya-based affiliate of MHI that is overseeing the MRJ project, says it fears that being a simple parts maker could see it get trapped in price wars with more competitive rivals from China or elsewhere. MHI is thus trying to avoid the same fate that befell its counterparts in the TV, computer and electronics sectors.
“We want to take things one step further, to become a real jet maker,” said Yuji Sawamura, a spokesman for Mitsubishi Aircraft.
Akinobu Okuda, a research director who monitors the aviation industry for Mitsubishi Research Institute, concurred, emphasizing that the company needs a larger goal.
“A tier 1 business is about making products whose specifications are designed by jet makers, such as Boeing and Airbus. … Even if tier 1 suppliers make good products, jet makers might demand they make them better and cheaper,” which will shrink their profits, he said.
According to Okuda, being a plane maker will give the firm the freedom to decide from the get-go what to make, and control of the overall supply chain, Okuda said.
But a jet makers’ business does not end at making planes. It must also provide continuous maintenance and support to the airlines that use them. Okuda said adding those businesses will help diversify MHI’s revenue sources.
Japanese manufacturers should adopt business models like these that can rake in long-term profits rather than settle for being suppliers, he said.
According to Sawamura, if all goes well, the MRJ endeavor could bring about a positive shift in the Japanese manufacturing industry and its way of thinking.
About 70 percent of the MRJ’s parts are made by overseas firms, since there are just a handful of aviation-related parts makers in Japan. But if MHI establishes itself as a jet maker, Japan can strengthen the aviation manufacturing sector, potentially creating more business opportunities for small and midsize firms. Such a shift would be reminiscent of Japan’s thriving auto industry, which continues to support a web of smaller parts makers.
The bounty could be enormous: Jets require more than a million parts, or over 30 times more than cars, which only contain about 30,000.
Can the MRJ survive the competition?
The market for regional jets, generally defined as planes with 50 to 100 seats, like the MRJ, is dominated by two firms — Brazil’s Embraer SA and Canada’s Bombardier Inc. — but Okuda believes the MRJ can break their stranglehold on the market.
“It’s a good time to enter the market … because Bombardier is shifting its focus to larger jets,” he said.
According to Japan Aircraft Development Corp., a Tokyo-based firm researching passenger jet development, planes in the 120-169 seat class are projected to enjoy the strongest demand between 2016 and 2035, with demand for regional jets expected to grow to around 3,600 planes.
Okuda said it won’t be easy for Bombardier to expand market share for planes bigger than 100 seats while competing against Boeing and Airbus. He also said Bombardier has been in dire financial straits and may not be able to develop new, competitive regional jets, creating a potential opening for the MRJ.
What are the MRJ’s selling points?
Mitsubishi Aircraft says the MRJ is 20 percent more fuel efficient than existing regional jets as it uses a cutting-edge engine made by U.S.-based Pratt & Whitney.
Since fuel is a huge cost for airlines, fuel-efficient planes are immensely appealing.
Sawamura at Mitsubishi Aircraft also said that while the jet may be small, its seats are as wide as those in midsize planes and its cabin is spacious, with a high ceiling.
Will the two flight cancellations to the U.S. affect the company’s business plan?
Commercial delivery of the MRJ has been delayed four times so far.
The two aborted flights at Nagoya Airport were caused when a sensor indicated there was a problem with the air conditioning system.
Sawamura, however, said that a check found nothing wrong and that the MRJ will soon be ready to go to the U.S. to conduct test flights. Okuda said the air conditioning trouble is unlikely to significantly affect long-term plans.
The test flights in the U.S. are needed for the plane to be certified by the Japanese transport ministry.
How is the MRJ doing from a business perspective?
In term of sticking to the initial schedule, it hasn’t been a smooth ride.
Mitsubishi Aircraft originally expected deliveries to start in 2013, but now the first delivery is set for 2018.
So far, Mitsubishi Aircraft has received 427 orders for the MRJ from clients including All Nippon Airways, Japan Airlines and U.S.-based Skywest.
While refusing to disclose the break-even point for the jet, the firm has said its goal for now is to sell 1,000. In the aviation industry, a model is considered a hit if sales reach 1,000.
More than ¥30 billion has reportedly been poured into the MRJ’s development, but Mitsubishi Aircraft declined to confirm that number and said it would recover the costs in the long run.
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