NAGOYA -- Mitsubishi Aircraft said Friday that it was making progress toward the launch of its SpaceJet aircraft, as it faces skepticism about its ability to compete with established jet makers.
The Nagoya-based company, a subsidiary of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, updated the Japanese press on its regional jet program for the first time in six months, reporting that its three-year turnaround effort was progressing under a new foreign-led team after five delays to its delivery schedule since 2013.
Mitsubishi Aircraft President Hisakazu Mizutani said the company had brought in 400 foreign experts to the program, while Chief Development Officer Alex Bellamy noted that the company was now operating globally with three operating bases -- Nagoya, Japan, Renton near Seattle in the U.S. and Montreal in Quebec, Canada.
The team was rapidly closing in on type certification for the 88-seat M90 model, aimed at the Japan market, Bellamy said in a press conference. However, it is thought that the program will not make its mid-2020 target, before the Tokyo Olympics, as hoped. Both the regulator, the Japan Civil Aviation Bureau, and the manufacturer fear that any rush to complete could result in problems, similar to the software glitches in the Boeing 737 Max that have caused crippling damage to the U.S. aerospace giant.
Bellamy, a former executive of Canadian regional jet maker Bombardier, underlined the fact that the program had been extensively revamped during a three-year overhaul under his team, from management to production. But the company still has a long way to go in rebuilding the confidence of customers, and more importantly, suppliers, who will have to make costly layouts to supply components such as engines and avionics.
Mitsubishi Aircraft's goal is that, once the M90 is certified, it will rapidly build on that base to produce models better configured for overseas markets -- the 76-seater M100 for the U.S. and the 100-seat M200 for Europe.
One of the challenges for Mitsubishi, particularly for the M100 project, was convincing suppliers to join the program, Bellamy said. "That's quite difficult with the M90 taking a long time. So we have to show them that ... we have a new way of developing aircraft and that they can [see a return on their] investment."
Some analysts remain skeptical. "Mitsubishi's credibility has been damaged over and over," said Kevin Michaels, managing director of AeroDynamic Advisory.
Mitsubishi argues that SpaceJet is a promising business and that it has the potential to capture a significant part of the North American market, where it estimates there will be demand for 2,000 regional jets over the next 20 years, mainly as replacements for aging aircraft. Globally, Mitsubishi thinks there is demand for more than 5,000 regional jets over the same time span.
Since there are only expected to be two players in the regional jet market -- Mitsubishi Aircraft and Brazil's Embraer, the Japanese company could get as much as half of the market.
But Michaels warns against being overly optimistic. "Mitsubishi is positioned to be a distant No. 2 supplier after Embraer's popular E-Jet series," he said. "The M90/M100 should be a great product, but a 20-30% market share vs. Embraer can be anticipated."
A further challenge will come from Boeing's planned participation in the commercial aircraft business of Embraer.
Nevertheless, Mitsubishi officials remain undeterred. They argue that Embraer's focus on a larger aircraft segment and a lack of investment either by Embraer or Boeing in the segment for jets with less than 100 seats leaves Mitsubishi better positioned to capture the market.
"When it comes to credibility, we just have to keep performing," Bellamy said. "We also have to recognize that any future program will build on a solid foundation from day one."