Today was supposed to be a celebration for Mitsubishi Heavy Industry (MHI), the dawning of a new era for its SpaceJet regional jet program. Instead the company is drastically cutting operations and development efforts as the market contracts. But it still must move forward in some ways.
Just under a year ago Mitsubishi and Bombardier agreed on a deal for the CRJ service operations. The deal would see MHI take over maintenance and engineering capabilities but not the main production line in Mirabel. The closing date was set for 1 June 2020. The intervening months, however, have not been kind to the SpaceJet program, nor to the industry as a whole.
The good news for MHI is that the CRJ support operation still has some demand. Even with thousands of aircraft grounded across the globe there is a need for some of the services provided by the group, and that should generate a trickle of revenue to help keep things moving for the business. But in the bigger picture MHI’s aerospace dreams are billions of dollars over budget, years behind schedule and slowing, even as the test program pushed forward.
It is not all doom and gloom for MHI. The company produced its first certification configuration M90 aircraft earlier this year. Thousands of changes, large and small, were incorporated from the initial design to the certification version of the aircraft. But in late March that configuration took flight, with plans to join the other test vehicles in Moses Lake, Washington, where the flight certification program operates. But the aircraft is still in Japan. It makes an occasional flight, though nothing tracked for the past three weeks.
That progress is, unfortunately, likely the last bit of good news the company will experience for some time to come. With market demand slumped, and little real optimism that even a smaller, US-scope complaint model of the MRJ would see service in the US market anyways, development of the M100 halted.
The M90 program will see further delays to the certification program. These will carry over into delivery delays for the type. First planned for 2013, the initial deliver to All Nippon Airways (ANA) is now targeted for late 2021, and that date remains soft. Just like the future of the program as a whole.
An uphill battle that keeps getting steeper
In a non-COVID world this acquisition would have marked a tipping point for the SpaceJet program. Prior management shake-ups were often more akin to shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic. But the anticipated changes with the Bombardier staff held more promise. The expertise and experience acquired should dramatically improve the resources available to MHI and help further ensure the success of the program.
But that world no longer exists. Instead Embraer sits nearly alone in the 50-100 seat jet market (Does the ARJ21 count? Or the supposed SSJ shrink program??). But even that position is not enough to celebrate. The company’s joint venture with Boeing is off and its financial stability remains uncertain. MHI should be able to enter the market as a competitor, but how and when that will really happen remains unclear. So does its chances for success.
Perhaps the SpaceJet will compete better against the A220, formerly the Bombardier C-Series and now an Airbus product. There is little irony that it is assembled in Mirabel, adjacent to the headquarters of the service organization MHI just purchased. Nor that it has firmly established itself as a leading option in the 120-150 seat market.
SpaceJet offers few compelling attributes to attract airline customers. Even competing on price Bombardier ran into trouble trying to get its CRJ700s and 900s to sell compared to the E-Jet versions. The interior configuration from Mitsubishi is updated, but remains anything but special for passengers. Though it certainly offers better comfort options than the CRJs did.
But is any of it enough?
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