The successful maiden flight of the Mitsubishi Regional Jet this month represents a milestone for Japan’s aviation industry, following a lapse of some 40 years in the development of passenger planes. But it’s too early to celebrate yet. Mitsubishi Aircraft Corp. and the other companies involved must carry out more test flights and then pass the transport ministry’s certification process before the first delivery of the aircraft can take place in April-June 2017.
The MRJ, a twin-engine jet capable of carrying 78 to 92 passengers and possessing a range of some 3,800 km, is the first indigenously developed passenger aircraft in decades. Japan’s aviation industry, which had produced some 100,000 military aircraft before and during World War II, including the famous Zero and Hien fighters, went through a crucial dark time following Japan’s surrender in the war as the Allied Occupation forces imposed a total ban on development and manufacturing of aircraft. By the time the ban was lifted in 1952, Japan found itself lagging far behind other countries whose aviation business had already entered the jet age.
In the mid-1950s, Nihon Aircraft Manufacturing Co. — a consortium including Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Kawasaki Heavy Industries and Fuji Heavy Industries, with 60 percent of its capital funded by the government — started development of the twin turboprop plane YS-11, which made its maiden flight in 1962. Its production was terminated in 1973 after only 182 planes were sold as the consortium suffered an accumulated loss of ¥36 billion. The core members of the consortium were not conscientious enough about holding down costs because their aviation business mainly consisted of sales to the Defense Agency.
Because of the failure of the YS-11 project, those firms became reluctant to develop passenger aircraft on their own — an enormously expensive endeavor that carries great risks. Instead, they chose to take part in the joint development of jets with Boeing Co. They became key suppliers of parts, including those using carbon fiber composite materials. But it was Boeing that took the initiative in aircraft development, and the Japanese companies effectively became subcontractors to the U.S. aircraft maker.
As Japanese firms accumulated technological strength through their cooperation with Boeing, the opportunity ripened in the 2000s for Japan to develop its own passenger aircraft with fewer than 100 seats for the short- and medium-distance market. Following the urging of a trade and industry ministry advisory board, Mitsubishi Heavy launched a project in 2008 to develop and produce passenger jets for regional services. Thinking that the consortium approach was responsible for the failure of the YS-11 project, it opted to set up a subsidiary — Mitsubishi Aircraft — to do the job.
Entering the market of large passenger jets, now dominated by Boeing and the Airbus Group, would be a daunting task. But if Mitsubishi Aircraft carves out a place in the smaller passenger jet market, Japan’s aviation industry can finally shed its subcontractor status in the development and manufacture of passenger jets. If Mitsubishi Aircraft, which hopes to eventually take a 50 percent share of the estimated 5,000 plane orders in the coming 20 years, is successful, the project will have another significant impact. Because the MRJ consists of 1 million parts, compared with just 30,000 parts for the average automobile, the number of companies supplying parts for aircraft production will be much greater. Thus the MJR project will likely create new job opportunities for many small and medium-size suppliers.
But Mitsubishi Aircraft shouldn’t be overly optimistic about its prospects. Not much time is left before the scheduled first delivery to All Nippon Airways. The MRJ’s maiden flight had to be postponed five times due to technical problems. The key to the project’s success is successfully carrying out test flights — 2,500 hours in total and mostly done in the United States — and passing the transport ministry’s safety tests for type certification.
One strong feature of the MRJ is that it is equipped with geared turbofan engines built by the Pratt & Whitney unit of United Technologies Corp., making the aircraft at least 20 percent more fuel-efficient than existing similar planes. But this advantage is expected to be reduced to less than half by the fuel efficient E2 passenger aircraft being developed by Brazil’s Embraer SA, which is to be delivered in 2018.
The MRA has so far won 407 orders — from ANA, Japan Airlines and airlines in North America — while the E2 has received 640 orders. Since the MRJ’s price is relatively high compared with rival planes — about ¥5.8 billion for the 90- seat version — Mitsubishi Aircraft may face pressure to lower its delivery prices. As of the end of 2014, the global market for small passenger planes with 30 to 110 seats was dominated by Embraer and Canada’s Bombardier Inc., which together occupy an 84 percent share. Russian and Chinese makers are also entering the market.
Although the competition will be fierce, the success of the MRJ project can help turn the domestic aviation sector into a leading industry and stimulate Japan’s manufacturing industry as a whole. The present small size of the nation’s aviation industry means that there is great room for growth. Mitsubishi Aircraft should mobilize all of its available know-how and resources to lay the foundation for expansion of the aviation industry, including the establishment of a reliable service system for overseas clients. The government, for its part, should extend necessary support since the development, manufacturing and sale of passenger planes is too big a project for the private sector to handle alone.
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