MIAMI — The entry into service (EIS) of the Mitsubishi Regional Jet (MRJ) has potentially been delayed once again, slipping from the current target of mid-2018 to 2019 and beyond, according to multiple reports in the Japanese press.
Mitsubishi reportedly told MRJ customers, including launch buyer ANA that it may need more time to incorporate design changes. The delay is not yet confirmed, but if it is enacted, it will push the MRJ’s development timeline to more than a decade since the launch of the program in 2008.
The news also comes just as Mitsubishi finally managed to ferry the first of its MRJ prototypes to the United States for flight testing after false starts and potential complications.
A hellacious development process
The MRJ was initially planned for EIS in late-2013 but a series of delays has pushed that timeline back by more than a decade. The first delay announced in mid 2012 pushed back the first flight to confirm fabrication processes and then provide sufficient time for technical studies, causing EIS to slip into 2015.
A subsequent delay in August 2013 pushed back the first flight further due to a holdup in the engine procurement process, and send the EIS from late 2016 to summer 2017. On December 24, 2015 a fourth delay was necessitated due to wing and landing gear redesign, which pushed the EIS to the current mid-2018 date. And now it appears that the MRJ has been delayed yet again.
The new normal
While the MRJ’s development process has been particularly wrought with pitfalls, its topsy-turvy execution has been a common theme throughout aerospace in the last decade and a half.
The Boeing 787 is perhaps the most widely known as a programmatic debacle, but aircraft as disparate as the 787’s wide body competitor the Airbus A350, the Bombardier CSeries, and even the relatively simple Airbus A320neo re-engine project have been tripped up by issues ranging from engine software to regulatory certification challenges.
One of the most repeated quotes in history came from Adam Smith when he opined “there is a great deal of ruin in a nation,” in the context of the American Revolution. At this point, it’s increasingly apparent that there is a great deal of ruin in any new aircraft development program, whether it is for a clean-sheet or a derivative airplane.
Design change to adjust for scope clauses?
One headwind that the MRJ90, which has won every single one of the 243 firm orders for the MRJ program to date, continues to face is the fact that the MRJ90 as currently built would run afoul of the scope clauses at major U.S. airlines.
Most scope clauses, which govern what aircraft can be flown on behalf of the mainline carrier by regional partners, contain restrictions on not only seat capacity but also maximum take off weight (MTOW). The MRJ90 is designed to seat 80-85 passengers and has a MTOW ranging from 87,303 pounds to 94,358 pounds. The current limits in most US scope clauses are 76 seats and 86,000 pounds. The seat capacity restriction can be circumvented by re-configuring the MRJ90 in a premium heavy configuration at 76 seats. But the weight restriction is impossible to game, so Mitsubishi has been banking on a relaxation of scope clauses for a while now.
The problem is that the dynamics in the U.S. airline market are not necessarily conducive to airlines winning concessions on scope from their pilot work groups. Airline profits are still high, and the market dynamics are tilting towards pilots who are emboldened by a unionized labor structure and a looming pilot shortage. More than 60% of the MRJ’s order book comes from two U.S. regional carriers (Trans States Holdings and SkyWest) and with EIS (sort of) looming, perhaps Mitsubishi is looking at taking some weight out of the MRJ90 to get in under the scope clause.
That should be achievable relatively easily with the standard model MRJ90 (Mitsubishi only needs to take out about 500kg of weight).
The problem is that the range of the standard model is only 1,100 nautical miles (nm), which translates into a real world range of just 800-900 nm. That might be fine in the compressed Japanese market but it won’t fly in the United States. So that pushes Mitsubishi onto the harder problem of pulling nearly two metric tons of weight from the extended range version (a still-anemic 1,150-1,300 nm of real-world range) or close to four tons from the long range version. That’s a tough lift and it could be the driver behind this delay.