The program had been more or less already dead for three years now. But this week Mitsubishi Heavy Industry (MHI) finally formally and fully killed off its SpaceJet regional jet program.
The company spent nearly $8 billion over the past decade to develop the aircraft. And it did realize a few significant accomplishments along the way. But MHI also now admits it did not truly understand just how hard it would be to develop a certified commercial aircraft, and that the market did not evolve as it expected.
In 2019, when the project was already several years behind schedule, the company put on a strong showing at the Paris Air Show. It effectively relaunched the project, rebranding to the SpaceJet and announcing a new model that would be compliant with US mainline airline scope clause requirements.
An executive at the time described the program as “the end of compromise in the industry… A platform to honor and respect the passenger while returning profitability to the airlines.” It is still unclear what that actually meant.
And in some ways the pivot worked. MHI quickly secured a US order for the smaller M100 and a few additional MOUs (reports suggest up to 500 aircraft may have been lined up). But MHI was also committed to delivering the larger M90 first, despite it having lower potential in the market.
It did have more hours flying and a configuration that could eventually receive the type certificate. It was a real aircraft, as opposed to the M90 which existed mostly as a concept. But demand was light and the cost to get from there to producing a product the broader industry might consider valuable was simply too high.
MHI also says it was “Difficult to obtain understanding and necessary cooperation from global partners.” Given that MHI didn’t truly understand the market as it launched the efforts, it is unclear if those global partners were being prudent or ornery. Ultimately, however, the outcome is the same for SuperJet.
The SuperJet flies, and it could be certified. MHI notes that further “partial revisions” would be necessary to account for the prolonged development and changes in available technologies. Further tweaks to improve aerodynamics and reduce emissions would also be required. And it is still unclear what demand truly exists in the market. A more efficient 76-seat jet could likely snag some market share, but at what cost to ultimately deliver?
In shutting down the SuperJet program MHI highlighted many accomplishments, including the 3,900 hours of test flight time, certification of carbon fiber materials, and securely mounting a large geared turbofan engine to a smaller RJ wing.
But those accomplishments ultimately are a small consolation against the very large failures identified. Among them, an “Insufficient initial understanding of highly complex type certification process for commercial aircraft.”
Which also raises the question of what other new OEMs might be similarly blinded by ambition, while missing out on the obvious signals that the market does not exist at a financially viable level. But at least supersonic is sexy, right? After all, MHI never got nearly the same level of media coverage as Boom Supersonic, despite being much closer to developing an aircraft that had value to the industry.
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