Japan's MRJ90 gets critical order but will it really fly?
With a $4.2 billion US order signed and sealed, Japan's Mitsubishi jet airliner project is finding its way into daylight, and flying regional routes in Australia is no longer totally out of the question
In the last week the polite silence that has characterised airline reactions to Japan’s Mitsubishi Regional Jet or MRJ project has been broken by the ‘firming up’ of a notional order for 100 of the aircraft first flagged at this year’s Farnborough Air Show.
‘Firming up’ has become in many cases, just a PR tool for twice the number of attempts to score a headline. One for the story about an order which is more an intention to order than anything else, and then another half a year later when the graphics and brochure claims are waved around a second time as the order, in this case worth $US 4.2 billion, is ‘firmed’.
For those interested in the actual, real, seriously available, well resourced prospects for a new airliner, this can be all too suss.
Nevertheless, it is probably time to take the MRJ with more than just a scattering of salt. The ‘firm’ orders for 100 of the 90 seat MRJ90 version comes from the American Skywest outfit, which will cease to be confused with the Singapore owned Western Australia based Skywest when the latter is bought and absorbed by Virgin Australia in coming months.
The American Skywest operation flies regional aircraft in the liveries of whichever major brand US carrier takes it on to manage connecting or feeder networks that rely on smaller capacity jets and turbo-props. It has so far been a survivor in what has at times proven a risky part of US aviation, and is similar in role but on a much larger scale to Alliance or Cobham in Australia, the former flying Fokker F100s for both Qantaslink and Virgin Australia at various times and the latter with a long relationship with Qantas, and operating Qantaslink branded Boeing 717s.
Could Alliance or Cobham or such like entities fly MRJs on behalf of major Australian carriers in the future? Yes, they could. It is possible. And the MRJ is nothing if not highly attractive in what it sets out to do, which is to be a roomy four across regional jet similar to but even roomier than the Embraer E-190s flown by Virgin Australia. But with claimed major cost reductions because of the use of Pratt and Whitney GTF or geared turbo fan engines and refinements in air frame construction and so forth.
Before Skywest USA came along the major ordered, firmed and hard baked customer for the MRJ was All Nippon Airways, for 15. ANA is also the ultra patient launch customer for the Boeing 787, and by more than coincidence Mitsubishi is also with its partner Fuji Heavy Industries to which it is linked through Toyota, in the risk and reward sharing ‘experience’ of being a designer and maker of parts of that Dreamliner story.
Mitsubishi is thus experienced in aircraft design and manufacture. It’s a long story. Google is your friend, and not always kind to Mitsubishi either in its documentation of matters not popularly recited in the media in Japan.
One of the design initiatives Mitsubishi took in relation to the MRJ in 2009 was to drastically cut back on the use of composites in the structure, mainly the wings, which are now tin, but very high grade ‘tin’, with composites more or less confined to the tail and rear sections of the jet. It was at the time described as a weight saving initiative, which spoke volumes for what was going on with the 787 from the perspective and knowledge of a major 787 partner.
But the MRJ for which there are now 165 firm orders, is getting viewed in a more interested light because of the seeming paralysis going on in Embraer as to how and when it will update its successful E-jet series. Success isn’t permanent in airliners, and the E-jets need to have a definitive plan for the future, the immediate future, rather than continued dithering in Brazil.
Work on building the test and certification fleet of the MRJ90 was said to have started in April 2011, but that was just the manufacturing of an emergency exit door for the cockpit. The jet is now claimed to make its first flight sometime in 2013, later in the year seems rather more likely at this stage, and it is supposed to start deliveries to customers in 2015.
Like the larger and wider Bombardier CSeries, which also uses the breakthrough technology of the GTF engines, the waiting and watching continues, with neither project so far attracting the numbers of orders that will make it less difficult to fund the enormous up front costs of development.
Ben Sandilands has reported and analysed the mechanical mobility of humanity since late 1960 - the end of the age of great scheduled ocean liners and coastal steamers and the start of the jet age. He’s worked in newspapers, radio and TV in a wide range of roles as a journalist at home and abroad for 56 years, the last 18 freelance.