January 7, 2014 7:00 pm JST

Mitsubishi Aircraft poised to land new regional jet orders

TOKYO -- Mitsubishi Aircraft is in advanced talks with multiple airlines to sell its yet-to-be-flown regional jet, according to the company's president.

     The Mitsubishi Regional Jet stands to be Japan's first domestically produced passenger aircraft in about 50 years. Orders for the plane have been stalled for some time. But President Teruaki Kawai told The Nikkei that his Nagoya-based company expects to receive new orders in the first half of this year.

     The deals could involve dozens of MRJs, deliverable in 78- and 92-seat configurations.

     Mitsubishi Aircraft has already taken orders, including options, for 325 MRJs from three carriers -- SkyWest and Trans States Holdings of the U.S. along with All Nippon Airways of Japan. But the last new deal was inked in December 2012, largely due to repeated development delays. The latest setback was announced last August. 

     Kawai did not identify the airlines involved in the current negotiations. He did say they are "smaller carriers in Asia and the Southern Hemisphere, not large players like ANA and SkyWest."

     The president said the talks are progressing smoothly. "We may be able to sign a memorandum of understanding with one airline soon," he said.

Delayed flight

Mitsubishi Aircraft, which is 64%-owned by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, started working on the MRJ in 2008. One of the jet's big selling points is fuel efficiency.

     To be powered by a next-generation engine from U.S. maker Pratt & Whitney, the MRJ will consume 20% less fuel than comparable jets in the skies now, Mitsubishi Aircraft says.  

     The key is to actually get the MRJ up into the blue yonder. Mitsubishi Aircraft initially intended to deliver the first unit in 2013; now, after three delays, the goal is to do so between April and June 2017.

     In the meantime, two formidable rivals are busily bolstering their own regional jet lineups.

     Brazil's Embraer is developing a small aircraft it expects to have ready in 2018. The jet will be powered by the same engine as the MRJ.

     Canada's Bombardier aims to win new customers by adding a jet with 100-plus seats to its lineup.

     With the global competition intensifying, fresh MRJ orders would give Mitsubishi Aircraft a welcome lift. Kawai insisted things are looking up. "We have found a way out of the woods," he said, "and finally started producing part of the aircraft."

     Kawai said the company is determined to stick to its plan to carry out the first MRJ test flight between April and June 2015.