While the first variant of Mitsubishi’s new regional jet is currently being flight tested at Moses Lake in Central Washington, the Japanese industrial giant announced Thursday a smaller, reconfigured and rebranded model designed to hit a sweet spot for U.S. airlines.

Goodbye to the Mitsubishi Regional Jet (MRJ) and hello to the SpaceJet, a name intended to convey to passengers that its spacious cabin offers as much room and comfort as any mainline jet. A mock-up of the proposed new interior will be on display next week at the Paris Air Show.

More significant than the new name, Mitsubishi has stretched the fuselage of this second member of its regional jet (RJ) family to provide the maximum passenger capacity allowed within U.S. restrictions on RJs. That transforms a jet that wasn’t selling into one that’s the ideal size for U.S. airlines.

The global business of producing regional jets — those small, often uncomfortable, sub-100-seat airplanes that major airlines typically fly domestically on less popular routes — has rapidly consolidated as Bombardier of Canada is leaving the business and Boeing is buying the RJ business of Embraer of Brazil.

Mitsubishi is seizing the moment by developing this new model while simultaneously making a bid for Bombardier’s regional jet business to provide a ready-made sales and support infrastructure in North America.

That looks likely to produce an unexpected twist. In the coming years, Mitsubishi may find itself in a position it always said it would avoid: head-to-head competition with Boeing.

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And there’s even a whispered chance that the new model SpaceJet for the American market could be built in the U.S., perhaps in Washington state.

Overcoming restrictions

The first MRJ model, a 90-seat airplane previously called the MRJ90 and now renamed the SpaceJet M90, is completing flight tests in Moses Lake. It’s scheduled to enter commercial service with All Nippon Airways (ANA) of Japan by the middle of next year — fully seven years late.

But that plane is too large to sell in the U.S., by far the biggest regional jet market, because American carriers work under “scope clause” restrictions with their pilot unions that limit the size of these secondary planes that are flown by lower-paid pilots.

The newly configured second variant will exactly meet the scope-clause weight restriction of 86,000 pounds and will carry the full U.S. limit of 76 passengers in three classes. In other countries without such restrictions, it will seat up to 88 passengers in a single class.

Mitsubishi designed the original MRJ with the faulty expectation that the U.S. scope restrictions would be adjusted upward. They were not, and aren’t likely to be for years. Mitsubishi seemed stuck, excluded from the market that represents 40 percent of global regional jet sales.

Thursday’s announcement means scrapping the previously planned MRJ-70, which could fit 76 passengers only in a single-class layout and proved too small for the U.S. carriers. It’s now replaced by the SpaceJet M100, the slightly stretched model.

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The old MRJ70 had the same wing as an MRJ90. But the new M100 version will have a smaller wing, reducing its wingspan by 4.5 feet, so while it can carry more passengers it won’t be any heavier than the MRJ70.

Mitsubishi promises “the widest and tallest cabin in its class, the roomiest economy seat and the most overhead bin capacity” of any regional jet.

For airlines, its main appeal is that unlike the other scope-compliant jets on offer, it’s an all-new design with highly fuel-efficient Pratt & Whitney geared turbofan engines.

Buying a support network

Separately, this month it was disclosed that Mitsubishi is bidding to buy out Bombardier’s RJ business.

If that goes through, Mitsubishi will acquire a fleet support and sales network to back its clean-design airplane. It will have the people, the contracts and the relationships Bombardier has developed across North America and will be well positioned to replace the more than 500 older Bombardier RJs in the current U.S. fleet.

“We now have the best product at the right timing,” Alex Bellamy, chief development officer for Mitsubishi Aircraft, said in an interview. “We think we will fundamentally change this sector.”

Bjorn Fehrm of Leeham.net is impressed with the MRJ’s possible transformation from “Ugly Duckling, the airplane that didn’t fit anywhere,” to a potential swan.

“The MRJ is the only regional jet with a new engine that fits in the U.S. system,” he said. “It’s the big news of the Paris Air Show.”

Embraer has a new line of E2 jets that feature similar Pratt & Whitney engines, but all are heavier than the 86,000-pound U.S. weight limit, and so don’t comply with the scope-clause restrictions.

With Bombardier gone and Boeing buying Embraer’s RJ business, Mitsubishi will be up against Boeing in the U.S. market — where Boeing will be able to sell only the older model E-Jets, not the fuel-efficient E2s.

With two deft strokes, said Fehrm, Mitsubishi is suddenly in a position “to be a viable competitor to Boeing.”

In Paris next week, Mitsubishi will promote its new model and try to convince industry experts that after years of delays it now finally has its act together.

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Teal Group analyst Richard Aboulafia said “the SpaceJet is theoretical,” still a paper airplane. Mitsubishi said the SpaceJet M100 program won’t be formally launched until later this year.

And Mitsubishi’s execution on the MRJ program has not been good up to now.

“It’s been a very long time that they’ve had an MRJ in gestation, and they are still years away from actually delivering a jet to the U.S. market,” Aboulafia said.

Bellamy insisted that Mitsubishi has learned from its mistakes.

“We have already started design work (on the Space jet) and we’ve brought additional partners onto the program,” he said.

He said he’s not worried about competing with Boeing because the under-100-seat RJ market is estimated at 5,000 aircraft globally over the next two decades, a size that’s “sustainable for two parties to operate … and for both to have a healthy business.”

Instead, he said, the problem will be to meet the expected demand.

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“We’ve been talking with many, many airlines. We see very strong market demand,” he said. “How do we get enough of them into the marketplace? It will more than likely require an expansion of production.”

While the main MRJ production site will be Nagoya, Japan, Bellamy said Mitsubishi “will not rule out building production facilities in the U.S.” if American carriers prove eager.

Mitsubishi Aircraft last month moved its headquarters from Texas to Renton. So if such a U.S. plant is needed, might it be located in Washington state?

“That’s far down the road yet,” Bellamy said. “But it has to be a good option.”