TOKYO -- The perennially delayed Mitsubishi Regional Jet may come under stricter regulatory scrutiny in the wake of the Boeing 737 Max crashes, adding to the obstacles faced by an aircraft that has yet to land a single new order in the past three years.
The Federal Aviation Administration in the U.S. has received pointed criticism for its apparent failure to flag safety issues cited in two crashes of the Boeing passenger jet occurring within five months. The FAA works closely with Japan's transport ministry, which grants type certifications for new planes.
Many now expect tighter oversight of the MRJ's developer, Mitsubishi Aircraft. The Japanese company aims to win certification for the regional jet by the time it completes the first delivery, currently slated for mid-2020.
"There is no change to our continued development focused on safety," Mitsubishi Aircraft President Hisakazu Mizutani said Tuesday, responding to a question about the FAA screening. The company was holding its first quarterly progress report on the MRJ since the deadly plane crash last month in Ethiopia.
But officials at Mitsubishi Aircraft's parent, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, have begun expressing caution.
"We could potentially be impacted by tougher [type certification] screening," a Mitsubishi Heavy executive said.
The regulatory scrutiny is the latest potential issue to impede the MRJ's commercial launch. Development for Japan's first homegrown passenger plane in over five decades began in 2008. The first delivery initially was scheduled for December 2013, but the date has been pushed back five times.
Orders for the jet once totaled up to 474 units from U.S. and Japanese carriers. But fresh orders stopped arriving in 2016, and cancellations have reduced the backlog to 407 units. Mitsubishi Aircraft has been busy trying to keep the count from dwindling further.
"We have been forced to give explanations to clients," an executive said.
The MRJ is losing ground to the likes of Embraer, the Brazilian rival that started delivering its narrow-body E2 last April.
"It is true that clients are looking closely at our development," said Mizutani, who added that the jet needs to materialize soon.
But the company's plans for mass production may be delayed. Tohmei Industries, a contract airframe assembler for Mitsubishi Aircraft, recruited only about 30 new employees this spring, short of the plan for 100 new hires.
The Aircraft Parts Manufacturing Cooperative, a group of 10 smaller domestic suppliers, built a factory in Mie Prefecture two years ago designed to handle everything from parts processing to coating. But the plant's operating rate "is stuck at 30% of the planned capacity," the network said. Suppliers say no concrete instructions have been received from the Mitsubishi Heavy group.
Mitsubishi Heavy has sunk more than 600 billion yen ($5.36 billion) into the MRJ through March 2018, and the group is expected to spend another 200 billion yen by the end of 2020. Missing the 2020 deadline as well could entail significant losses for the project -- and draw the ire of impatient clients.
"I no longer hold too much expectation" for the MRJ, an airline executive said.