Bombardier, manufacturer of the world’s largest western civilian turboprop aircraft, the DHC-8 Q400, today launched the 90 seat variant at the Singapore Airshow, making the largest airplane even larger in terms of capacity, without so much as stretching the airplane by an inch.
The Q400 usually seats 78 passengers in a single class with a 30 inch seat pitch. In 2013, Bombardier had launched the 86 seat variant of the Q400, with Nok Air of Thailand as the launch customer. The 86 seat variant offered a seat pitch of 29 inches, by shifting the aft galley into the aft cargo hold, thereby reducing aft cargo space by 20%, and doing away with the forward baggage hold.
This made the case for Bombardier to announce a 90 seat variant with a seat pitch of 28 inches. To add an extra 4 seats, or one row, Bombardier is, according to Flightglobal, will push back the rear bulkhead and reconfigure the front right hand door. To make the airplane more attractive, Bombardier is increasing the 90 seat variant’s payload by 900 kg, and proposing an escalation of the A-Check and C-Check intervals from 600/6,000 to 800/8,000 flight hours. The 90 seat variant is expected to enter service as early as 2018, provided Bombardier secures a launch customer for the type.
Why at the Singapore Airshow?
There are four reasons why ATR and Bombardier are focusing on South East Asia. First, the geography and infrastructure of countries is such that connectivity within the country is best offered by short haul air transport. Second, the region is comprised of developing nations, where the end customers, the passengers, are very price sensitive. Third, demand for travel is rising. Fourth, the average height of the population is much shorter than the western world.
Turboprops are excellent for short and thin routes. Average ticket prices can only be lowered if the cost per seat falls further. The same airplane packing more seats lowers the cost per seat per flight, which allows airlines to compete better using pricing as a tool. The 90 seat variant may reduce the cost per seat by as much as 11-13% when compared to the 78 seat variant, and by 3-4% when compared to the 86 seat variant. Packing more seats reduces the seat pitch, which would have been a repulsive product to sell to passengers in the western world. But in South East Asia, the lower average height makes a 28 inch seat pitch comfortable. South East Asians are, on average, one of the shortest in the world.
Bombardier had launched the 86 seat variant at Dubai, but the launch airline is from a South East Asian country. Knowing that any demand for ultra high density aircraft variants will only come from Asia, Singapore Airshow 2016, Asia’s biggest commercial aerospace and defense exhibition, had to be the platform of choice.
Japan’s first commercial jetliner, the Mitsubishi Regional Jet (MRJ) 90 took to the skies at 8:30 in the morning from Japan’s Nagoya airfield, for a flight that lasted nearly 85 minutes long. The flight was conducted by a MRJ 90 STD, registered JA21MJ, with construction (serial) number 10001. The aircraft flew with a constant flap setting, landing gear down and locked, and thrust reversers de-activated.
The first flight marks a major milestone for a program that is significantly delayed. The first flight was planned for 2012.
The 92 seat MRJ 90 has a seating capacity that directly competes with the 88 seat Embraer E175, and the 90 seat Bombardier CRJ 900. However, the aircraft is fitted with Pratt & Whitney’s high bypass Geared Turbofan Engines (GTF), which allow the aircraft superior fuel economics than any sub-100 seat regional jet, today. This is the MRJ 90’s USP.
Below is a comparison of key performance, weights and dimensions between the Bombardier CRJ900, Embraer E175, and the Mitsubishi MRJ 90:
Below is the comparison of ranges between all three aircraft and their sub variants:
The last Japanese commercial airliner program was the YS-11 turboprop airliner, in 1960. The MRJ program, which marks a comeback of the Japanese airliner market after a gap of nearly 60 years, adds an additional player in the regional jet market.
The regional jetliner market today is dominated largely by Embraer and Bombardier, with Embraer grabbing a larger share of the pie. Sukhoi’s Superjet International SSJ 100, a 100 seat regional jetliner, is so far an insignificant player. China’s regional jet, the ARJ 21, hasn’t yet entered service. Mitsubishi becomes the fifth player.
However, Mitsubishi will be the third aircraft program to penetrate the United States Market. 76% of the MRJ 90’s firm orders are from airlines in the United States. 170 aircraft are ordered by three US regional airlines: Trans States Holdings (a holding company for three regional airlines), Sky West, and Eastern Airlines.
A new aircraft brings with it two key questions that affect sales : How reliable will the aircraft be, and how good with the customer support be?
A new aircraft will almost always have issues with reliability before the aircraft ‘matures’ and corrections are made to the production aircraft. This has been seen with the Boeing 787, the Embraer E190 (when it entered service with JetBlue), the Airbus A380 – all new airplanes have their fair share of troubles till the product matures. The MRJ 90 will be no exception.
Customer support, which can sway market shares, has been carefully dealt with, by MRJ. Boeing Commercial Aviation Services, which today is one of the best, will provide Mitsubishi Aircraft with 24/7 customer support including spare parts provisioning, service operations and field services, until Mitsubishi takes service in-house.
Another important aspect for an airplane is the residual value of the aircraft – data that is yet unavailable. Lessors prefer to bet on airplanes that they know for certain will have a good enough market residual value to capitalise on.
Is the MRJ 90 in a good segment?
The MRJ 90 is an airplane with better market prospects than the MRJ 70. Since the beginning of 2009, Embraer has recorded 0 net orders for the 78 seat EMB170 regional jet, and Bombardier has recorded just 28 net orders for the 78 seat CRJ 700. On the other hand, since beginning 2009, Embraer has recorded a net 443 orders for the 88 seat E175 and E175E2 together, and Bombardier has recorded 139 net orders for the 90 seat CRJ 900. The 90 aircraft market has had better prospects over 27 quarters than any other size of regional jets. Below are the order graphs:
The MRJ 90 is in a very hot segment, which can get hotter if scope clauses in the United States are upward revised. The clause today limits US regional airlines to an aircraft weighing no more than 39 tonnes and limited to 76 seats. Unfortunately, the MRJ 90’s minimum maximum takeoff weight is 39.6 tonnes, while the lighter variants of the CRJ 900 and EMB 175 are within this specification.
The MRJ 90 is in a very unique position. Bombardier is not neither developing nor re-engining aircraft that are below 100 seats. The CRJ 700, 900 and 1000 aircraft will soon fade away as Embraer re-engines its aircraft and revises the wings to offer the market better versions (second generation) of the present E175, E190, and E195 regional jet models. Bombardier’s customer support history also works against the manufacturer. This effectively reduces notable competition to just Embraer and Mitsubishi in the sub-100 seat regional aircraft space.
The second generation of the Embraer E175, renamed the E175 E2, will be fitted with engines similar to the MRJ90, matching the MRJ 90’s fuel economics. However, the E175 E2 is expected to enter service only in 2020.
The MRJ 90 on the other hand is expected to enter service in 2017. However, uncertainty looms about the manufacturer sticking to its timeline, as it has not had any proven track record of dealing with jetliner programs in the recent past. Bombardier, an experienced manuafcturer, has slipped the CSeries’ timelines. It will not be surprising if Mitsubishi does the same. But even if the timelines slip by a year, to 2018, Mitsubishi will have atleast a 2 years head start over Embraer in the sub-100 seat regional jet space.
Bombardier’s success with the CRJ 100/200 airplanes, which eventually sold 935 units, made it explore significantly larger capacity airplanes, in the 100 seat segment. According to Bombardier’s study in 1998, there was a growing requirement for larger aircraft in the fleets of the world’s regional airlines. To keep up with the growth in mainline fleets, Bombardier felt that regional fleet must grow in both size and capacity. The company felt that if the regional fleet did not grown beyond 50 seats, the number of 50-seaters required to satisfy demand would quadruple.
Bombardier identified a gap between its 50-70 seat CRJ series, and the smallest of the Airbus and Boeing single aisle offering: the Airbus A318 and the Being 737-600, both with typical single class capacity of around 120 passengers. Even before a formal launch, Bombardier had unveiled during the Farnborough Air show in 1998 the 88 seat BRJ-X-90 and the 110 seat BRJ-X-110, the “BRJ" short for Bombardier Regional Jet.
The BRJ-X-110 was applauded by airlines as a true 100 seat airplane, unlike attempts by Airbus and Boeing to scale down much larger airplanes. Although during that time, the first of the Brazilian Embraer E-Jets, the 80 seat ERJ 170, competitor to the CRJ700, hadn’t yet taken to the skies, published drawings of the BRJ-X airplanes bore an external resemblance to the new Embraer jets. But the cabin was wider, with a 5 abreast seating.
Threats from the new Embraer jets, which had a significant head start, and the then Fairchild-Dornier’s 50-110 seat regional jetliners, forced Bombardier to rethink the BRJ program. Late 1999, despite having further matured the design of its “paper airplanes", Bombardier switched focus from the BRJ-X-90 to the stretched CRJ700: the 90 seat CRJ 900. According to Michael Graff, the then President of Bombardier Aerospace, “ They (airlines) have told us that a simple stretch of the CRJ 700series rather than an all new aircraft in the 90 seat category will meet their requirements for increased capacity at reduced acquisition and operating costs"
Mid 2000, although the BRJ-X-90 was killed, the entire BRJ program was suspended, but never cancelled. In the March of 2004, the 114 seat Embraer 190 took to the skies on its first flight, and Bombardier had no airplane to compete in that class. In July of the same year, Bombardier announced the development of the C Series as a replacement for the shelved BRJ-X project.
The C Series then had two variants: the 125 seat CS110 and the 145 seat CS130. But after failing to secure significant orders, and in the light of the certification of the Embraer 190 in 2005, the program was shelved in early 2006, and the focus again shifted to lengthening the CRJ series, to a 100 seat CRJ1000.
In the July of 2006, EASA certified the 124 passenger Embraer 195, competing directly with the shelved CS110. Bombardier was trailing its only significant regional jet competitor, Embraer, with no competing airplane.
Early 2007, Bombardier re-commenced work on the C Series program. In the July of 2008, Bombardier officially launched the C Series, with a letter of interest for 60 aircraft and 30 options from Lufthansa.
Having the right product at the right time bode well for the Brazilian airframer. The CRJ 700, 900 and 1000 combined have orders (as of 30 June 2013) of 723 airplanes, of which 91 are unfulfilled. On the other hand, the Brazilian Embraer E-Jets, comprising the E-170/175 and 190/195 families, have total firm orders of 1213, of which 266 are unfulfilled. Bombardier had to stop trailing and start leading, and focus on the clean sheet C Series was the only way out.
*This section is part of a much bigger, comprehensive article on the C-Series by The Flying Engineer.