The Mitsubishi Regional Jet (MRJ) will see first deliveries pushed from 2018 to 2020. Two Zero Two Zero. This is a classic case of a project built on dreams rather than the reality of the regional jet market. Mitsubishi was answering questions nobody was asking. Don’t get me wrong, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries is a wonderful supplier of aerospace parts (787 wings for example) but it should never have chosen to get involved in the retail of its own commercial jets. When the plane was introduced as a concept in 2007 at the Paris Airshow I believed it was destined to failure from the beginning. It had nothing to do with the technical abilities but it was playing in a market dominated by two makers (Embraer & Bombardier) who held 70% share. MRJ wanted 20% of the supposed 5,000 regional jet market. The problems are/were many:
1) Boeing & Airbus‘ 20-year commercial aircraft forecasts scaled back the exact market that MRJ was shooting for from 5,000 to 2,500. The market was no longer looking at 70-90 seats but 110-120 which is exactly where Embraer and Bombardier were aiming. Airbus notes its sales of the smaller A319 have fallen from 44% of the A320 family to 5% in 2015 while the larger A321 has gone from 10% to 38% over the same period. In essence larger planes are becoming much more efficient so the place for regional jets is shrinking. So MRJ was targeted at the wrong space and the market is expected to be 50% smaller. So even if MRJ managed to hit 20%, 500 planes would unlikely be a breakeven point. MRJ has 243 orders so far and 200 options with fairly shaky customers outside JAL & ANA. It has had one customer cancel. On top of this China is entering with the COMAC C919 and the Russians with the Sukhoi Superjet 100.
2) Regional airlines tend to run on shoestring budgets and downturns can cause them to trim back routes and fleet numbers. Part of the reason of owning potentially slightly less efficient aircraft which have high market shares is the resale market. When times get tough, leasing companies have a much easier time placing more popular types in the market for other customers because with such high shares, potential demand is global. The residual values are important in downturns. I won’t be the least bit surprised if MAC is having to guarantee them to sell the planes they have. The biggest purchasers of MRJs are smaller US regional airlines. More delays risk order cancellations or penalty payments for MAC.
3) Pilots. In general most pilots are only certified to fly one type of aircraft. If an airline has a lot of Embraer, they are likely to grow with the same plane so their pilot pool is more flexible. Pilots also train to fly planes which offer them flexibility with careers. If planes like the MRJ are unlikely to sell well, then fewer pilots want to spend years learning to fly for an aircraft type with low prospects.
4) Service crews. The ground technicians have to be trained. If airlines have one type of plane, training costs are reduced and replacements, spares and service networks are more commonplace. If 3 MRJs are sold in Brazil, then the supply networks need to be on the ground but serving such a small fleet size just impacts cost and riding on the back of a 3rd party vendor only emphasizes they aren’t a serious player.
5) Airlines hate risk. Buying a brand new airframe is risky. Launch customers are making judgements based on computer models and without launch customers, aircraft manufacturers don’t commit. Buying a new airframe with a brand new engine makes the proposition even riskier. The 787 was a new airframe but the engine architecture from Rolls-Royce and GE was based on existing designs.
6) Materials. MRJ tried to go the state of the art composite route but had to scrap plans and go back to traditional alloys because the cost was too high, killing off one of the key selling points.
Sadly delays are part and parcel of modern aircraft design. MRJ can little afford more delays. Aircraft orders for Airbus and Boeing have slowed in recent years, some 20-30% off the peak of 1500 a piece. Regional jets are at the rump end. A sluggish global economy and airlines that have expanded too quickly are backing off the throttle. This two year delay could lead to cancellations. Any global downturn could see those orders and options get trimmed or cancelled sending earnings into a tailspin.