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Mitsubishi's SpaceJet has new name but suffers same problems

Development woes force a sixth delay to passenger jet's debut

Mitsubishi Heavy launched the program to develop Japan's first homegrown passenger jet in 2008. (Photo courtesy of Mitsubishi Aircraft)

TOKYO -- Mitsubishi Aircraft is seeking a sixth postponement on delivering its rebranded SpaceJet regional passenger plane, Nikkei has learned, with a new target date to be set as soon as next month.

Setbacks in developing the body of the aircraft, formerly known as the Mitsubishi Regional Jet, have slowed the process of obtaining type certification, a prerequisite for commercial flight. Parent company Mitsubishi Heavy Industries has sought a review from outside experts to help set a delivery date beyond the standing mid-2020 target for the 90-seat-class jet.

Mitsubishi Heavy launched the aircraft project in March 2008 with much fanfare, aiming to develop Japan's first homegrown commercial jetliner. The country's once-vibrant aerospace industry was virtually shutdown by a ban on aircraft production by American occupiers in the aftermath in World War II. The industry has slowly made a comeback through parts production, and the SpaceJet will mark a full-fledged re-entry into the aircraft business.

But the project has been plagued with problems stemming from the inexperience and lack of knowledge that arose from Japan's long absence from developing entire aircraft. 

 All Nippon Airways -- now part of ANA Holdings -- to be the first to purchase the craft, and the Japanese government shouldering 50 billion yen ($460 million at current rates) in development costs. The project was envisioned as spearheading a private-sector push to build up Japan's aviation industry.

After development difficulties became apparent, Mitsubishi Aircraft began working behind the scenes with affiliated parties to adjust the schedule. It proposed options including a roughly six-month delay to Mitsubishi Heavy recently, marking yet another setback for a jet initially scheduled to be delivered in 2013.

While the SpaceJet is undergoing flight tests, setbacks such as wiring defects have affected development of a final prototype. Delays have also arisen in requesting the reams of documentation that must be reviewed for type certification from Japan's  Ministry of Transport.

The SpaceJet rebranding was announced in June along with a smaller 70-seat version, aimed to be delivered in 2023. The jet's fifth and most recent delay, announced in January 2017, set the mid-2020 target partly with an eye toward having the craft play a part in transporting the Olympic torch for next summer's Tokyo games.

Mitsubishi Heavy will likely begin hashing out compensation for the delay and other details with customers soon, with aviation companies to weigh stopgap measures such as using substitute jets. The industrial equipment maker has already sunk over 600 billion yen into the project and suffered strains such as underwriting fundraising efforts for the aircraft maker. Further delays will only worsen the pain.

Meanwhile, Mitsubishi Heavy closed a deal in June to acquire the regional jet operations of Canada's Bombardier, seeking to improve its own maintenance business.

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