The Mitsubishi Regional Jet (MRJ) program — with 600 employees in Washington state — is progressing methodically toward its 2020 debut. Undeterred by delays, escalating cost and barriers to U.S. sales, Mitsubishi aims to build a new commercial jet industry in Japan.

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MOSES LAKE — The Mitsubishi Regional Jet program — which employs some 600 people in Washington state, about half from Japan — is progressing slowly and methodically toward its service debut two years from now, officials said this week at the plane’s U.S. flight test center at Grant County International Airport.

Officials at manufacturing giant Mitsubishi, undeterred by the program’s delays and escalating costs and by barriers to U.S. sales, say their target is nothing less than building the framework for a new commercial-airplane industry in Japan.

In two days of media briefings at the flight test center in Central Washington, British-born program leader Alex Bellamy said the vision of MHI Chief Executive Shunichi Miyanaga is “to establish a new industrial sector for Japan.”

“Starting a new industry is a very difficult task,” said Bellamy, who is MRJ chief development officer at Mitsubishi Aircraft. “We are extremely committed to doing that.”

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That means not only designing and building the new family of 69-to-88-seat regional jets, Japan’s first commercial passenger airliner in 50 years, but also developing from scratch a Japanese regulatory and certification system to match the established U.S., European, Canadian and Brazilian authorities.

In another sign of the far-reaching ambition behind the MRJ program, the aero engine division of parent company Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) — which until now has built only jet-engine components — has set up a final assembly plant to build the MRJ version of Pratt & Whitney’s innovative Geared Turbofan (GTF) engine in Japan.

Boeing and Airbus typically complete flight tests on a new airplane in about a year. Mitsubishi, with flight tests roughly halfway complete, will take another two years before planned entry into service in 2020.

Due to a series of delays, that’s seven years later than originally planned at the program launch in 2008, and five years after the MRJ’s first flight.

Bellamy said that while Boeing has the experience to largely complete a mature design before testing, “we don’t have that pedigree.” So Mitsubishi, going through flight test for the first time, is using the tests not only to certify the plane but to adjust the design, retrofit modifications and introduce performance improvements as the flight tests progress.

At the same time, he said, Mitsubishi is simultaneously working with the Japanese government “to build a regulatory system for Japan.”

Quiet jet

On Wednesday, with the hot, flat desert expanse around Moses Lake a nexus for flight tests by both Mitsubishi and Boeing and for military-training exercises, MRJ test pilots had to wait patiently for their turn in the afternoon sky.

First a big C-17 military transport from Joint Base Lewis-McChord made low-level passes. Then a Boeing 737 MAX flew over the assembled press corps. Finally, a trio of F/A-18G electronic jamming fighter jets from the Whidbey Island Navy base did synchronized turns around the airfield before coming in to land and parking with folded wings.

Then it was the MRJ’s turn. The pilots flew the routine that Mitsubishi will showcase at the Farnborough Air Show near London next month.

The most striking element of the flyover, from takeoff to landing, was that the plane is exceptionally quiet. The new GTF engine has a whoosh rather than a roar, and spectators couldn’t hear the jet at all until it passed directly in front of them.

The aircraft’s interior should also impress because the passenger cabin is significantly wider and taller than the cramped cabins of existing regional jets. Its four-abreast seating will offer a wider seat than a Boeing 737 narrowbody.

The worldwide fleet of sub-100-seat regional jets — planes used as feeders from smaller airports into larger hubs — is about 3,200 aircraft, with about 1,800 of those in North America. Mitsubishi projects a demand for 5,000 more over the next 20 years.

A sales barrier

And yet, there is a significant obstacle to MRJ sales in the U.S., the world’s biggest market for regional jets.

Because regional jets (RJs) are flown by lower-paid pilots, labor contracts negotiated by the mainline jet pilots’ unions at the major U.S. airlines include “scope clauses” that limit the number and size of regional jets in the airline fleets, and impose seating and weight restrictions.

In recent years, airlines have been ordering larger planes so that the common 50-seat RJs are gradually being replaced by RJs with 76 seats, the upper limit in the scope clause.

Anticipating a relaxation of the scope clause rules, Mitsubishi decided to first produce a bigger jet, the MRJ90, which seats 76 passengers in the dual-class seating preferred by U.S. airlines.

Unfortunately, that gamble didn’t pay off. The MRJ90’s take-off weight is just heavier than the scope clause allows and the pilot unions show no interest in relaxing the rule. So the two large U.S. regional airlines now holding 150 of the 213 firm orders booked for the MRJ90 won’t be able to fly them.

SkyWest, which ordered 100 of the jets, and Trans States Holdings, which ordered 50, must either cancel their orders or switch to the smaller MRJ70, which seats 69 passengers in a dual-class configuration. The MRJ70 won’t enter service until 2021.

Another troubling aspect for the Mitsubishi sales team is that the MRJ70 will have to compete against the slightly bigger and already flying Bombardier CRJ900 and Embraer E175. These seat 76 passengers in dual class — the extra seven passengers cutting the advantage the MRJ70 enjoys from its all-new-airplane fuel efficiency.

Bellamy is philosophical, pointing to the performance improvements he expects before the MRJ enters service.

“We are also looking at how we can cram in extra seats,” he added.

Pushing forward

Yet for all that sales uncertainty, it’s clear that deep-pocketed Mitsubishi, with its eye on creating the foundation for future commercial-airplane development in Japan, is determined to push ahead.

Japanese media reported last year that MRJ development costs are expected to reach $4.5 billion, triple the original estimate.

Mitsubishi’s commitment is good news for Washington state. About 400 people are employed for the flight test and certification phase at Moses Lake, and an additional 200 in Seattle. Next year, two more MRJ90 flight test planes will join the four already here.

With two MRJ70 flight-test planes to follow those, the flight tests will continue here for another four years at least.

Jep Thornton, managing partner at Aerolease Aviation, made a long, successful career in aviation by buying, selling and leasing used airplanes before he was persuaded by Mitsubishi to become the launch lessor for the new MRJ. He ordered an initial 10 MRJ90s.

Thornton said the delays to the MRJ program stopped all sales conversations until Mitsubishi could fix the technical problems.

“We pulled back,” he said. “We realized it was going to take some time for everyone to begin to understand that the program is righted.”

Now he sees the fixes made and flight testing progressing. Though he doesn’t expect many orders as early as the Farnborough Air Show that begins in a couple of weeks, he believes the MRJ is positioned to begin again adding sales.

“Mitsubishi can pull this off,” Thornton said.