Aerospace & Defense

Mitsubishi envisions more comfortable regional flights on its new 'SpaceJet'

Key Points
  • Mitsubishi Aircraft is developing the first Japan-made planes in more than 50 years.
  • The newly named "SpaceJet" will include the smaller M100 and the larger M90.
  • The company is conducting test flights for its M90 with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, in a bid to take on larger rivals.
Rendering of Mitsubishi's new medium-range plane, the SpaceJet

Mitsubishi Aircraft is getting closer to launching the first Japan-made airliners in more than half a century: the SpaceJet.

The Japanese aircraft manufacturer, a unit of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, now needs regulators and customers to get on board.

Ahead of the Paris Air Show, Mitsubishi unveiled on Thursday the retrofuturistic new brand name and outlined plans to get the program — long plagued by production delays — finally up in the air.

It tweaked the design of the smaller of the two planes in the Mitsubishi Regional Jet family to lengthen the cabin and trim the wings, an effort to fit more travelers and their bags on board while still meeting U.S. pilot union rules It also recently started test flights for the larger version, the SpaceJet M90 (or MRJ90) with the Federal Aviation Administration and the Japan Civil Aviation Bureau in Washington state, where the airplane-maker recently opened new U.S. headquarters.

The 88-seat M90 has a range of about 1,300 miles, or around the distance between New York and Miami.

The more fuel-efficient planes compared with previous models are part of a wave of designs for aircraft smaller than the single-aisle Boeing and Airbus planes that dominate air travel and fit from about 150 to more than 200 passengers.

Rendering of Mitsubishi's new medium-range plane, the SpaceJet

These planes come with large overhead bins, more spacious seats and bigger cabins than some of the older and more cramped regional planes some flyers dread.

Customers that ordered Mitsubishi's M90 and M100, which it plans to deliver in 2020, have included Japan's All Nippon Airways (ANA) and SkyWest, a North American regional carrier which counts United Airlines, American and Delta as its clients. Because the larger M90 does not match union scope clauses, some airlines have the option to switch to the smaller model, Alex Bellamy, chief development officer at Mitsubishi Aircraft, told CNBC.

But if Mitsubishi wants to break in to the regional jet market in North America, size matters.

That's because of pilot union rules in the U.S. that cap the number of seats on regional jets at 76 and limits take-off weight, so that more flying isn't outsourced from large, mainline carriers to smaller regional airlines, where crew pay is lower.

Why Airbus and Boeing dominate 99% of the large plane market

So Mitsubishi is offering a tweaked smaller version of the plane, the SpaceJet M100, to fit those rules and to increase the size of overhead bins. Because there will be enough space each passenger's full-size carry-on bag, designers opted to shrink the cargo area. Mitsubishi plans to debut the plane's interior at the Paris Air Show, which starts on Monday.

"In the U.S. market, the aircraft is optimized to be scope clause compliant in the 65-76 seat, three-class cabin configuration," Mitsubishi Aircraft said in a release on Thursday.

The rebranding comes at a turning point for the regional jet industry.

Mitsubishi has reportedly been considering taking over Canadian competitor Bombardier's regional jet business, which would give the Japanese manufacturer access to a large aftermarket support network.  

Bellamy declined to comment on the negotiations but said that "building a product is 50% of the equation.

"We need to build our customer support and [the Bombardier deal] would be one way to support that," he said.

Airbus last year took majority control of Bombardier's C-Series program and renamed the planes A220. And Boeing is in the midst of taking over Brazil-based Embraer's commercial jet business.