The writing had been on the wall for years now, but only last week did Mitsubishi make it official. It is done trying to build its own regional jet — a category I consider to be aircraft with less than 100 seats in a single-class configuration. That leaves only Embraer trying to win orders… and using an older technology aircraft for the category’s primary market in the US.
Since the dawn of the regional jet, there have been two main players. The Canadair Regional Jet (later Bombardier, and later yet again Mitsubishi) rolled out in the early 1990s and the Embraer ERJ-145 followed in the mid-1990s. Together, those manufacturers all but put turboprops out of business in the US. (I’m choosing to ignore the Antonov AN-148, Sukhoi Superjet 100, and COMAC ARJ21 since they will never get much traction beyond Russia and China.)
They soon expanded their offerings to grow further upmarket into the 70-76 seat category. Bombardier had the CRJ-700, CRJ-900, and even the larger CRJ-1000 which technically holds more than 100 in a single class. It eventually moved on to make the bigger C-Series which was sold to Airbus and is now the A220, but those aren’t regional jets.
On the Embraer side, the growth was into the Embraer 170 and Embraer 175 with stretches into the Embraer 190 and Embraer 195, both of which also hold more than 100 in a single-class layout. Those all widely serve today, though Embraer has moved on to its E2 product line which is an updated and upgraded version of all of those planes (except the Embraer 170 which did not get an update). In theory the E175-E2 can be considered a new generation regional jet, but there is a problem that prevents that from serving the all-important US regional market.
The US market is different than any other in that there are size and weight restrictions thanks to pilot scope clauses. To operate for a regional carrier under a mainline brand, the airplanes can have no more than 76 seats and can’t have a maxium takeoff weight of more than 86,000 lbs. That means that the market for the CRJ-700/900 and the Embraer 170/175 is mostly for US airlines. The Embraer 175-E2 weighs too much, so it loses out.
Of course, the mainline airlines could operate these airplanes if they wanted, but it would be higher cost and there are few examples to date of any of these aircraft being flown by US mainline operators. Those examples that do exist (eg the old US Airways Embraer 190) were on airplanes too big for mainline pilot scope clauses anyway.
The US regional market dwarfs the rest of the world. Here’s how many of those airplanes are in service or on order today for US carriers vs non-US carriers.
US-Compliant Regional Aircraft In Service and On Order
The airplanes that didn’t fit under the cap included the larger and barely-ordered CRJ-1000 along with the E175-E2 and the E190-E2. Without the US market, these airplanes have struggled mightily. Between the three of them, there are a total of 53 either in service or on order. It’s a rounding error. (The E195-E2 has done somewhat better with more than 200 ordered or in service, but that’s still small potatoes.)
With this backdrop, along came Mitsubishi. In 2007, Mitsubishi announced it would develop the MRJ regional jet to try to compete in this space. The idea was baffling. Mitsubishi would wisely not compete in the 50-seat market but rather focus on the 70-100 seat size range. In this range, the US was the biggest market by far, but Mitsubishi wouldn’t bother competing in that market, because its airplanes would weigh too much.
The company pushed ahead, securing orders for the MRJ from ANA and Japan Airlines (presumably due to external pressure and not actual desire). There were also orders from US carriers, but that required scope clauses to change for them to become firm, so they were never realistic.
Mitsubishi was serious about making this a reality, and it continued to develop the airplane, opening a great deal of work in the US and Canada as it marched toward certification. In 2019, it made a big splash by acquiring the nearly-wound down CRJ program from Bombardier. This gave the company a global support network that would aid in the adoption of the MRJ when it came to fruition.
At the same time, Mitsubishi renamed the MRJ as the SpaceJet. It dropped the smaller MRJ70 and renamed the MRJ90 into the M90. More importantly, it finally saw the importance of the US market and announced the M100 which would seat 76 passengers and comply with US scope clause rules. How it took so long for Mitsubishi to even acknowledge this enormous market is something I will never understand.
The pandemic brought a halt to all work on the program as Mitsubishi realized just how hard and expensive it would be to get this thing flying in commercial service. The program languished in purgatory until last week’s announcement that it was officially being euthanized.
Mitsubishi says it learned two lessons from this whole mess.
- Insufficient initial understanding of highly complex type certification process for commercial aircraft
- Insufficient resources to continue long-term development
You’d have hoped it could have figured this out long ago, before it sunk billions and billions of dollars into the program. But at least let this be a lesson to Boom and the countless number of eVTOL manufacturers out there. This is VERY hard to do.
Some of the reasons given for discontinuing the program are mind-numbingly stupid. For example, “Little progress on scope clause… relaxation resulted in M90’s not meeting North American RJ market needs.”
No kidding, huh? There was never any serious chance of the scope clause moving at any time during the program’s existence. It should have focused on a 76-seat option with lower weight from the start and it might have had a chance, especially as those older CRJ-900s reach 20 years of service and need replacement. But instead, it opted to focus on the part of the market with limited to no demand and dim prospects at best.
With Mitsubishi’s exit, the regional jet market is looking pretty barren, especially in the US. As long as those scope clauses are in place, this will be a very important market segment, but the only competitor now is the Embraer 175, an older technology airplane that has already been replaced by the too-heavy E175-E2.
When Mitsubishi stepped it up in 2019, I was hopeful. This was just about the easiest way possible to sneak into any aircraft market segment for a manufacturer. But Mitsubishi couldn’t hack it, and now the long-term future for the category remains entirely unclear.