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Mitsubishi introduces fuel-efficient domestic plane

Inside a business-class cabin mock-up of the MRJ, on display at Japan International Aerospace Exhibition 2012.

Publication Date : 11-10-2012


The sales drive for the Mitsubishi Regional Jet (MRJ), which will be the first airliner designed and produced domestically since the YS-11 in the 1960s, is getting into full swing.

With the inaugural flight set for 2013 and the first delivery scheduled for 2015, a life-size cabin mock-up of the MRJ has been put on display for the first time at Japan International Aerospace Exhibition 2012, the largest exhibition of its kind held in Asia, which opened Tuesday in Nagoya.

With the demand for aircraft expected to rise, the revival of a domestically made aircraft has been at the centre of expectations in the Japanese industry.

The MRJ is a passenger jet aircraft seating 70-90 passengers, now being developed by Mitsubishi Aircraft Corp, a Nagoya-based subsidiary established in 2008 by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Ltd.

Ten other private companies, including Toyota Motor Corp., have injected a total of 100 billion yen into the aircraft company.

MHI manufactures most of the frame, including the fuselage, while Toray Industries, Inc. is in charge of producing the carbon fiber composite material used for the tail, and Sumitomo Precision Products Co. manufactures the main landing gear. Other key components, including the hydraulic control system and the metallic processing, as well as the manufacturing of the seats, are being handled by other Japanese companies.

The real-size cabin mock-up on display at the Nagoya exhibition measures less than 3 metres in diameter and its passenger seats, overhead bins, and passenger windows are all life-size.

While sales officials of Mitsubishi Aircraft distributed leaflets to visitors, President Hideo Egawa greeted guests from abroad with a smile, saying, "Even on smaller domestic jets that are often considered cramped, comfort is needed."

"It is so spacious that it's hard to believe this is a small aircraft," said a senior executive of an airline who tried a seat while stretching out his legs.

The back and bottom of the seats are thinner than conventional seats. Instead of urethane foam, a 3-D net fabric employing Japanese textile technology is used to support the passenger's weight. Although the diameter of the fuselage is smaller than that of a mid-sized aircraft, there is little feeling of being cramped.

One key characteristic of the MRJ is its high fuel efficiency. Most of the fuselage is made of aluminum, while carbon composite parts make up only about 10 per cent of the aircraft. Using a highly fuel-efficient engine, the fuel consumption is at least 20 per cent better than other competing aircraft, said an official of Mitsubishi Aircraft.

Annual fuel costs usually account for more than 40 per cent of the operational cost of an airplane.

While low-cost carriers (LCCs) are expanding their network of flights, cutting fuel costs is a challenge each airline faces today.

An MRJ making one-hour return flights three times a day will have fuel costs of 100 million yen less than competing aircraft annually. "With 100 MRJs, an airline can save 10 billion yen a year," said Egawa, speaking to the appeal of the economic efficiency of MRJs to airlines around the world.

Challenging '2 powers'

According to the Japan Aircraft Development Corporation, Canadair Regional Jet (CRJ) of Bombardier Inc. accounts for 64 per cent of the market share of regional jets in terms of delivery recorded as of the end of August, followed by Embraer of Brazil at 35 per cent.

Andy Solem, vice president of China and North Asian sales of Bombardier Commercial Aircraft, lauded his company's achievement in having its aircraft flown all over the world.

Meanwhile, an MRJ, which has no achievements as of yet, is no more than a "paper plane", at present. While the profitability line for the MRJ is said to be 400 jets, the company has so far received orders for 230 units.

"We'd like to see whether the MRJ can realise the performance specified in the design," said an airline official. Many airlines have taken a similar wait-and-see attitude.

With the introduction of MRJs, an airline would see the number of aircraft models under its management increase, which may increase the time and money spent on maintenance and upkeep. These elements could prove unfavourable for newcomers to the airline industry.

As materials used for the main wings have changed from carbon fiber composite materials to aluminum, Mitsubishi Aircraft has already postponed its first delivery twice.

Although Hideaki Omiya, president of MHI, calls these changes and delays "birth pangs", Mitsubishi is facing a tough battle, as a Russian rival has taken the lead in scheduling its first delivery.

A new regional jet, seating less than 100 passengers, is thought to be fit for flying between a hub airport and local airports. It is less likely to cause noise pollution, compared with large and mid-sized aircraft, which are the leading players in the aviation industry. The regional jet also has the advantage of being able to use shorter runways for landing and take-off.


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