TOKYO – The venture building the Mitsubishi Regional Jet (MRJ), Japan's first commercial aircraft in half a century, predicts the market for 70-90-seat jets could be as many as 5,000 over the next two decades - almost double the forecasts of the two big specialist regional jetmakers, Brazil's Embraer
The new Japanese plane, set to take flight this year and begin delivery in 2015, may, say industry experts, be aimed as much at winning more aerospace jobs for Japan from traditional partner Boeing Co than at being a compelling profit proposition.
"We'd like to capture about half the 5,000 aircraft market," Teruaki Kawai, CEO of Mitsubishi Aircraft Corp, told Reuters.
That forecast is also 2,000 planes more than predicted by the Japan Aircraft Development Corp (JADC), which is chaired by Hideaki Omiya, CEO at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) <7011.T>, 60 percent-owner of Mitsubishi Aircraft Corp.
"It's an unrealistic top-line number," said Richard Aboulafia, aerospace analyst with the Teal Group in Virginia.
The official sales target of the venture, in which Toyota Motor Corp <7203.T> is a significant shareholder, is for more than 1,000 MRJs. Asked about the disparity in the forecasts with those of its main rivals and its own industry lobby, a spokeswoman for the MRJ venture said its outlook was based on its own data, without explaining how it reached that figure.
Rather than making money, though, the MRJ may prove its worth by making friends.
Japan's aerospace industry was dismantled by the United States at the end of World War II. By 1952, Japanese engineers were allowed to overhaul U.S. Sabre fighters and other planes being used in the nearby Korean War, but by then Japan's aeronautic engineers had scattered to car makers and other manufacturers, decimating an industry that at its peak employed as many as 1 million people.
By the 1960s, Japan began making the 64-seat turboprop YS-11 - a commercial flop, with only 182 built - but impressive enough for Boeing to agree partnerships with MHI, builder of the war-time Zero fighter, and other pre-war planemakers such as Kawasaki Heavy Industries <7012.T>.
"The YS-11 was a failure as a business, but without it we wouldn't have been able to do the (Boeing) 767," said Shinsuke Ito, deputy director of aerospace and defence at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI).
The Boeing connection has grown over time, and around 22,000 Japanese jobs, 40 percent of the country's aerospace industry, now rely on the U.S. planemaker for work. Japanese firms accounted for around 15 percent of the Boeing 767 build, 21 percent for the wide-body 777, and 35 percent for the 787 Dreamliner.
Should Boeing build a 797, Japan's government and industry will be looking to win a sizeable chunk of the project.
"We are challenging on something we haven't done for 50 years," said METI's Ito, likening the MRJ project to the local tradition of rebuilding the Ise Grand Shrine, one of Shinto's holiest sites, every couple of decades in a 1,000-year-old renewal rite that passes construction skills down through the generations.
It is also another chance for Japan to showcase its aerospace skills as Taiwanese, South Korean and Chinese firms jostle for a place in Boeing's global supply chain. "We see more entrants into the field like Korea and Taiwan," said Ito. "If they (Boeing) can find something more fruitful for them they may switch."
Others, too, worry rivals could eat into Japan's Boeing business.
"In South Korea and Taiwan, labour is cheap. I think Taiwan is about a third (of the cost) of Japan, but the completed products are not much different," said a manager at one central Japanese aviation parts and equipment supplier who did not want to be named because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
The finished jet will also be up against Russian planes and China's ARJ21, a less sophisticated jet but one that has a big home advantage in a growing market that could account for one in every five planes sold globally within the next two decades.
TRIED AND TESTED
For now MHI and its partners are looking to make the new regional jet - developed at a cost of $1.9 billion - a bigger seller than the YS-11 in a tough, competitive, crowded market.
The plane was initially envisaged six years ago as a carbon composite jet - like the 787 Dreamliner - but designers scaled back the use of innovative plastics to just 15 percent of the aircraft. Nor does the MRJ use the Dreamliner's lithium-ion battery technology or electrical systems - which have been troublesome for the 787 and prompted all 50 Dreamliners in service to be grounded since mid-January.
"Lithium-ion batteries are too innovative for us," said Kawai. The MRJ will use conventional cadmium nickel power packs.
The MRJ, which like the Dreamliner boasts 20 percent fuel savings, has a sticker price of $42 million and has won 165 firm orders to date. First delivery, in 2015, will go to All Nippon Airways <9202.T>, also the Dreamliner's launch customer.
The new jet will add leg room by using less bulky seats, while the plane's thinner wings will boost efficiency. Most of the fuel savings will come from the two PurePower engines developed by United Technologies Corp's Pratt & Whitney - engines that market leader Embraer plans to use on its jets from 2018, potentially giving MRJ a 3-year window to muscle in on the market.
By shifting the design from technological innovation to a traditional aluminium shell and tried and tested power systems, the Japanese consortium is instead showcasing its ability to coordinate complex aircraft projects, manage supply chains and get to grips with aviation financing.
"The Dreamliner is like a Lexus and the MRJ is like a minicar. Minicars don't come loaded with all the latest stuff," said an MHI executive, who also asked not to be named.
($1 = 94.6650 Japanese yen)
(Additional reporting by Kentaro Sugiyama, Yoko Kubota and Mari Saito; Editing by Ian Geoghegan)