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Long-delayed Mitsubishi jet ready for first air show

But competitors Embraer and Bombardier are catching up

The Mitsubishi Regional Jet is finally ready for unveiling.

TOKYO -- Japan's first commercial jet airliner in half a century will make its maiden public flight this summer at a British air show as manufacturer Mitsubishi Aircraft rallies from numerous setbacks that have let competitors close in for a dogfight in the regional airliner field.

"I want to show the aircraft soaring across the sky so that more people recognize the Mitsubishi Regional Jet," President Hisakazu Mizutani told Nikkei Wednesday.

The MRJ will make its first exhibition flight in July at the Farnborough International Airshow in England. Mitsubishi Aircraft, a unit of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, hopes to dispel worries about delays that have plagued the aircraft's development by demonstrating its flying abilities. The company displayed only the plane's body at the Paris Air Show last year. 

Development of the MRJ began in April 2008, with the first deliveries initially slated for the second half of 2013. The delivery date has now been delayed five times, most recently in January last year to relocate the electronics bay and related wiring. The company received its first order cancellation this January.

"We will just be able to meet last year's goal of delivering the first aircraft by mid-2020," said Mizutani. "The design work is nearly complete." 

But just as Mitsubishi Aircraft appears poised to get back on track from its series of setbacks, rival regional jet makers have suddenly cozied up to major airplane manufacturers like America's Boeing and Europe's Airbus.

Bloomberg reported on April 10 that Brazil's defense minister said the country's regional jet maker Embraer and Boeing probably will reach a deal. Airbus also said in October that it will partner with Bombardier by taking a stake in the Canadian planemaker's subsidiary for its C Series of smaller airliners.

Mitsubishi Aircraft, however, has remained calm while its rivals team up with the airplane industry's two biggest names.

"Airbus and Boeing are targeting small aircraft with 100 seats or more," said Mizutani. "At 70 to 90 seats, the MRJ is for a different set of customers."

Yet Mitsubishi Aircraft still risks being left behind, having tapped Boeing to provide after-sales support service for the MRJ. The company's relations with Boeing could change if the U.S. planemaker deepens its connection with Embraer.

Mitsubishi Aircraft is also letting its chance to catch up to Embraer and Bombardier slip through its fingers. Initially, the MRJ's appeal was to be its high-fuel efficiency from cutting-edge Pratt & Whitney engines, but Embraer will release a new plane with the same engines as soon as 2021.

The MRJ's setbacks are also weighing on parent company Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.

"We will become a world leader in the energy-environment and the aerospace fields," then-President Hideaki Omiya, who currently serves as chairman, said in April 2008.

Profits from those segments were to be diverted to the MRJ project, but the delays have prompted the company to sell off some assets and shrink fixed costs.

This all comes amid a slowdown in the company's mainstay thermal power generation business. Demand has flagged globally for such equipment as concern for the environment grows. Orders for large gas turbines in the nine months through December fell 70% on the year to just four units.

The space and aviation segment is also struggling as component demand for Boeing's next-generation 777X airliner has yet to lift off while 777 deliveries fell 40% in fiscal 2017 to 57 planes.

"Once mass production begins, we will have to think about raising capital at the appropriate time," said Mizutani, given Mitsubishi Aircraft's excessive liabilities.

Nikkei staff writer Eiki Hayashi contributed to this report.

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