Test flight delay puts pressure on Japan's regional jet plan

By Tim Kelly

TOKYO (Reuters) – Mitsubishi Aircraft said on Friday it will delay the maiden test flight of Japan’s first commercial jet in half a century, squeezing further an already tight schedule to begin deliveries in two years.

The Mitsubishi Regional Jet (MRJ) will make its first flight by the end of October, the company said in a presentation. The Japanese company had planned to conduct the MRJ’s maiden flight before the end of June. ANA Holdings , it said, is still slated to get the first MRJ in June 2017, three years later than initially planned.

“We are still planning to deliver to ANA in the second quarter of 2017, so we don’t see the delayed test flight as having any serious impact,” Hiromichi Morimoto, president of Mitsubishi Aircraft, said at a press briefing in Nagoya in central Japan, close to the MRJ’s assembly plant.

Mitsubishi Aircraft did not specify the reason for the delay. It was “not the result of any major unexpected problem”, said the company’s vice president, Nobuo Kishi.

The Mitsubishi Heavy Industries subsidiary that includes Toyota Motor Corp as an investor is building the $42-million regional jet, with just under 100 seats. It aims to supplant Canada’s Bombardier (BBDb.TO) as the world’s second biggest maker of 100-seat regional jets, behind Brazil’s Embraer (EMBR3.SA).

“The in-service date is still feasible; two years, or even 18 months is enough time, if there are no more significant delays,” said Richard Aboulafia, vice President of the Teal Group. “But the history of this programme shows a pattern of unexpected delays.”

Mitsubishi Aircraft has said it wants to sell more than 2,000 of its jets, a target aviation analysts view as ambitious.

Mitsubishi has so far won 223 firm orders from customers, including U.S. regional groups Trans States Holdings and SkyWest Inc (SKYW.O), and ANA’s local rival Japan Airlines Co .

Japan’s last attempt to build a successful commercial aircraft was in the 1960s, with a 64-seat turboprop dubbed the YS-11. Only 182 planes were built by a consortium that included Mitsubishi Heavy.

The MRJ’s biggest selling point, Mitsubishi says, is its ability to burn a fifth less fuel than aircraft of similar size, thanks to new-generation engines from Pratt & Whitney, a subsidiary of United Technologies Corp (UTX.N).

After the MRJ came into the picture, Embraer said it would upgrade its E-Jets with the same fuel-efficient Pratt & Whitney engines under the name E2. These will be delivered from 2018 only a year after the delayed MRJ.

Mitsubishi has a better chance of displacing Bombardier, which is focusing on breaking into the market for 150-seat aircraft at the expense of its smaller CRJ regional jets.

(Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman)

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Test flight delay puts pressure on Japan's regional jet plan
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