MRJ jet

Asian plane-makers to take-off on regional routes

Fresh from the 2012 Farnborough International Airshow, Mark Williamson considers the rise of regional jets.

The majority of aircraft passengers don’t know, or care, whether they are travelling in an Airbus or a Boeing, much less a competing airframe from Embraer or Bombardier, but they generally have some expectations regarding size. If they are flying long haul, they expect a wide-body jet, probably with two aisles, and possibly with an ‘upstairs’ for the suited and the uber-rich. If it’s a three to five hour flight, they’ll expect a smaller jet with a single aisle and comparatively less in the way of comfort, while for city-hoppers a noisy box with propellers is the accepted norm. However, expectations at the lower end of the scale may be about to change.As with much of business and technology, things were simpler in the past. Flying from one country to another was possible only from a limited number of major city airports and a handful of national airlines had the market sewn up. Flying within a country was only considered economically viable for the large, developed nations, such as the US, or for nations with little ground transport infrastructure (as a result of their geography).

The development of air tourism and low-cost carriers changed all that, but for operational reasons the industry retains its hub-and-spoke character. If you want to fly direct from London to Rome you will find a multitude of competitors, but choose to fly between regional airports - such as Liverpool and Naples for example - and pickings are thin. For this type of journey, we are usually obliged to fly via a major airline’s hub city, such as Paris or Amsterdam.

As for the aircraft, while advances in technology have improved turboprops in terms of quietness, efficiency and speed, they are not considered an option for long or medium-haul flights, largely because they are slower. They have made an impact on regional routes, where they are seen as more competitive, but even this is changing as jets are gradually replacing turboprops in this sector.

But what exactly is a regional route, and thus a regional aircraft? Even the airline industry seems unclear about the definition, describing regional routes variously as short-haul, feeder routes or routes served by independent airlines. Moreover, the issue is not just one of flight duration and routing; it also concerns the number of seats, which in definitions of regional aircraft can vary anywhere between 50 and 120.

While definitions may be fuzzy, it is clear that aircraft manufacturers are addressing the regional market, not least because fare-paying passengers increasingly expect to travel direct between smaller airports, effectively eschewing the established hubs.

Arguably the best-known regional aircraft is Bombardier’s Canadair Regional Jet (CRJ) series, which dates from the late 1980s and continues to develop through the CRJ1000 ‘NextGen’ 100-seat derivative of the 76-90 seat CRJ900. As an example of the industry’s complexity, at this year’s Farnborough International Airshow, Bombardier was also pushing its Q400 NextGen turboprop, which it describes as “the optimised aircraft for short-haul operations in the 70-80 seat segment”.

Meanwhile, the lesser-known manufacturers of the Asia-Pacific region appear to have a clearer focus on what is required… and it’s jets all the way, as shown by COMAC’s ARJ and Mitsubishi’s MRJ, both of which are billed as next-generation regional jets.

COMAC, the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China, Ltd, was appearing at Farnborough for only the second time, but it made an impact with the full-scale mock-ups of its C919 single-aisle 150-seat airliner and ARJ21-700 78-90 seat Advanced Regional Jet, both of which are in the development phase. Although the larger C919 is not the story here, it is interesting to note that COMAC signed an MOU (memorandum of understanding) with IAG (the result of the BA-Iberia merger) at the Airshow, involving cooperation in “technological and operational requirements”. In other words, IAG is willing to share its experience with COMAC to help the Chinese manufacturer produce the aircraft it needs in the future.

With the ARJ, COMAC is addressing the domestic market, where the burgeoning number of regional airports represents a clear need for this type of aircraft. Charts in the company’s product brochure show that a standard ARJ21-700 could serve most of China from a couple of centres, while a planned 700ER (extended range) could cover the entire nation from a central hub.

However, a further chart reveals an eye to the export market by contrasting the operating cost of the ARJ with Bombardier’s CRJ variants and Embraer’s ERJ, or “E-Jet family”, in the 70-120 seat markets. It boasts that ARJ operating costs are “9.6 per cent lower than competitors per seat per kilometre”. Naturally, competitors would say that this is little more than a ‘brochure promise’, but modern engines (from GE), aerodynamic efficiency-improving winglets and a glass cockpit are there to back the claims. Unfortunately, deliveries have been delayed significantly following what the industry refers to as “design and certification issues”.

A direct competitor in the local and international market is the Mitsubishi Regional Jet (MRJ), which also featured large at Farnborough. In a press briefing, Hideo Egawa, president of Mitsubishi Aircraft Corporation, referred several times to the “game-changing MRJ”, reflecting brochure references to “a game-changing engine, state-of-the-art aerodynamic design and noise analysis technology…”. The glossy pamphlet also mentions “top-class operational economy”, “outstanding cabin comfort” and reductions in fuel consumption, noise and emissions. Actually, it’s a bit like trying to compare a Honda and a Nissan!

Unfortunately, the much-vaunted MRJ has suffered what Egawa called a “schedule slide”, with final assembly of the first aircraft not due to begin until “early next year”, with first delivery in 2015. When pushed, he put the delay down to technical studies that “took too much time” and trouble subcontractor Mitsubishi Heavy Industries had in “complying with procedures”.

US carrier Trans States Airlines, which signed a letter of intent for 100 MRJs in 2009, fielded company president Rick Leach to put a brave face on the delay in delivery: “As launch customer we were disappointed when the delay was announced”, he began, “…but our belief in MRJ remains as strong today as when we decided to embark on this journey five years ago”. His company remained “anxious to bring MRJ to the US market”, he concluded.

Delays are rarely good news, but what amounts to a rebranding of the regional jet - as small but technologically advanced - appears unstoppable. Dividing the commercial jet market between wide-body, narrow-body and regional jets, Mitsubishi claims that one in four departures were made by RJs in 2011, and that 70-100 seat RJs account for 20 per cent of the future sales market. On a regional basis, its demand forecast predicts sales of some 5,600 aircraft between 2011 and 2030, split 38, 26 and 20 per cent between North America, Europe and the Asia-Pacific, respectively. It is easy to see why Asian manufacturers are keen to make their presence felt at European air shows, even before they have a model on the runway.

Economics being what it is, air passengers may never be able to jet direct from their local airfield to an island in the sun, but the rise of the regional jet could help us to avoid some of those tedious layovers at uninspiring European hubs. *

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