The Future of Regional Jets Dims as Mitsubishi Walks Away


The writing had been on the wall for years now, but only last week did Mitsubishi make it official. It is done trying to build its own regional jet — a category I consider to be aircraft with less than 100 seats in a single-class configuration. That leaves only Embraer trying to win orders… and using an older technology aircraft for the category’s primary market in the US.

Since the dawn of the regional jet, there have been two main players. The Canadair Regional Jet (later Bombardier, and later yet again Mitsubishi) rolled out in the early 1990s and the Embraer ERJ-145 followed in the mid-1990s. Together, those manufacturers all but put turboprops out of business in the US. (I’m choosing to ignore the Antonov AN-148, Sukhoi Superjet 100, and COMAC ARJ21 since they will never get much traction beyond Russia and China.)

They soon expanded their offerings to grow further upmarket into the 70-76 seat category. Bombardier had the CRJ-700, CRJ-900, and even the larger CRJ-1000 which technically holds more than 100 in a single class. It eventually moved on to make the bigger C-Series which was sold to Airbus and is now the A220, but those aren’t regional jets.

On the Embraer side, the growth was into the Embraer 170 and Embraer 175 with stretches into the Embraer 190 and Embraer 195, both of which also hold more than 100 in a single-class layout. Those all widely serve today, though Embraer has moved on to its E2 product line which is an updated and upgraded version of all of those planes (except the Embraer 170 which did not get an update). In theory the E175-E2 can be considered a new generation regional jet, but there is a problem that prevents that from serving the all-important US regional market.

The US market is different than any other in that there are size and weight restrictions thanks to pilot scope clauses. To operate for a regional carrier under a mainline brand, the airplanes can have no more than 76 seats and can’t have a maxium takeoff weight of more than 86,000 lbs. That means that the market for the CRJ-700/900 and the Embraer 170/175 is mostly for US airlines. The Embraer 175-E2 weighs too much, so it loses out.

Of course, the mainline airlines could operate these airplanes if they wanted, but it would be higher cost and there are few examples to date of any of these aircraft being flown by US mainline operators. Those examples that do exist (eg the old US Airways Embraer 190) were on airplanes too big for mainline pilot scope clauses anyway.

The US regional market dwarfs the rest of the world. Here’s how many of those airplanes are in service or on order today for US carriers vs non-US carriers.

US-Compliant Regional Aircraft In Service and On Order

The airplanes that didn’t fit under the cap included the larger and barely-ordered CRJ-1000 along with the E175-E2 and the E190-E2. Without the US market, these airplanes have struggled mightily. Between the three of them, there are a total of 53 either in service or on order. It’s a rounding error. (The E195-E2 has done somewhat better with more than 200 ordered or in service, but that’s still small potatoes.)

With this backdrop, along came Mitsubishi. In 2007, Mitsubishi announced it would develop the MRJ regional jet to try to compete in this space. The idea was baffling. Mitsubishi would wisely not compete in the 50-seat market but rather focus on the 70-100 seat size range. In this range, the US was the biggest market by far, but Mitsubishi wouldn’t bother competing in that market, because its airplanes would weigh too much.

The company pushed ahead, securing orders for the MRJ from ANA and Japan Airlines (presumably due to external pressure and not actual desire). There were also orders from US carriers, but that required scope clauses to change for them to become firm, so they were never realistic.

Mitsubishi was serious about making this a reality, and it continued to develop the airplane, opening a great deal of work in the US and Canada as it marched toward certification. In 2019, it made a big splash by acquiring the nearly-wound down CRJ program from Bombardier. This gave the company a global support network that would aid in the adoption of the MRJ when it came to fruition.

At the same time, Mitsubishi renamed the MRJ as the SpaceJet. It dropped the smaller MRJ70 and renamed the MRJ90 into the M90. More importantly, it finally saw the importance of the US market and announced the M100 which would seat 76 passengers and comply with US scope clause rules. How it took so long for Mitsubishi to even acknowledge this enormous market is something I will never understand.

The pandemic brought a halt to all work on the program as Mitsubishi realized just how hard and expensive it would be to get this thing flying in commercial service. The program languished in purgatory until last week’s announcement that it was officially being euthanized.

Mitsubishi says it learned two lessons from this whole mess.

  • Insufficient initial understanding of highly complex type certification process for commercial aircraft
  • Insufficient resources to continue long-term development

You’d have hoped it could have figured this out long ago, before it sunk billions and billions of dollars into the program. But at least let this be a lesson to Boom and the countless number of eVTOL manufacturers out there. This is VERY hard to do.

Some of the reasons given for discontinuing the program are mind-numbingly stupid. For example, “Little progress on scope clause… relaxation resulted in M90’s not meeting North American RJ market needs.”

No kidding, huh? There was never any serious chance of the scope clause moving at any time during the program’s existence. It should have focused on a 76-seat option with lower weight from the start and it might have had a chance, especially as those older CRJ-900s reach 20 years of service and need replacement. But instead, it opted to focus on the part of the market with limited to no demand and dim prospects at best.

With Mitsubishi’s exit, the regional jet market is looking pretty barren, especially in the US. As long as those scope clauses are in place, this will be a very important market segment, but the only competitor now is the Embraer 175, an older technology airplane that has already been replaced by the too-heavy E175-E2.

When Mitsubishi stepped it up in 2019, I was hopeful. This was just about the easiest way possible to sneak into any aircraft market segment for a manufacturer. But Mitsubishi couldn’t hack it, and now the long-term future for the category remains entirely unclear.

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46 comments on “The Future of Regional Jets Dims as Mitsubishi Walks Away

    1. Nobody said that Antonov was based in Russia, just that it doesn’t have any significant market outside of Russia. Which is true, at least for now (30 out of 40 orders).

      1. If Wikipedia is correct (always have to hedge that bet) ~70% of the An-148 comes from Russian manufacturers, including the engines.

        If the factory is still intact after the war, Antonov could theoretically upgrade the plane with Western components, but time isn’t on their side.

        If there is enough demand, I’d love to see BAe restart the RJ-70 line with a two-engine version (the older version met the weight limit, barely), but BAE Systems doesn’t seem to have a lot of interest in non-military projects any more, other than component manufacturing.

        CF, is there any possibility the airlines could be convinced to be a little more flexible on the weight component of the scope clauses? That would at least allow the E170-E2.

        1. CraigTPA – No chance. This isn’t an airline issue. This is a pilot union issue. Could they be convinced to ease up on the weight limit to allow the E175-E2 (the E170 didn’t get an E2)? Maybe, but why bother using your negotiating power for that purpose if you don’t get an increase in seats.
          There are far more important fish to fry.

        2. Your talk of a Avro RJ70 based twin reminds me that every now and then someone starts talking about reviving Dornier’s jet program, which had larger variants proposed. At the very least, it was already a twin, unlike the quad-engine BAe 146/Avro RJ series.

          1. That Dornier 328 was an absolutely delight from a PAX experience perspective. I know ground crews hated it but I love it as a passenger.

      2. Jason – Yes, thank you. I don’t care where it’s made, the point stands.
        And by the way, of those remaining 10 orders, 6 were from Cubana (with the fleet grounded for something like 5 years already) and 2 were from Air Koryo. The only demand from within Ukraine is 2 lonely airplanes to some tiny wet lease operator. Ukrainian airlines know better than to order that thing.

  1. The real losers in all this are the small communities that are connected to the large hub cities, but I don’t see a way forward as small jets take up valuable slots & carry fewer than 100 passengers at a time.

    1. Yep. I know there’s a lot of hope in Regional Air Mobility (RAM), electric aircraft and automation but the fact for the next 10 years is going to be 2 pylots at 2 high of wages for small communities. Electric aircraft reliably in service won’t be good for airports more than 200 miles from a hub and if Mitsubishi can’t get certification correct, why should an electric upstart? Highly underestimating how difficult it is to create new aircraft type. Every small community I’ve talked to with air service ambitions is oblivious of the economics of air service and it’ll get far worse.

  2. For all the well-deserved criticism of Mitsubishi here in the article, some shade should be thrown on Embraer as well for designing a next generation model that will never fly in the world’s biggest market. While the reason for this may seem illogical and stupid to an outsider, it is a reality – and to sell a product, you need to have a product that customers will buy. While Mitsu totally mishandled their RJ business, Embraer should know better and I can’t believe that they didn’t offer an E2 model that meets scope clause requirements. Can’t decide whether that move shows arrogance or ignorance.

    1. It’s ironic, until the US regionals started ordering the E175, the E190 was the most popular E Series aircraft. But, of course, no one outside the US would know that. TACA/Avianca, COPA, Air Canada, LOT, Aerolineas Argentinas, Finnair, Kenya Airways, Royal Air Maroc…There are two US examples though, of mainline flying. JetBlue, and AA/US used to fly the E190.

  3. is there any way embraer could reduce weight on the e2-175 enough to make it compliant with scope clauses?

    1. Henry – I assume if Embraer could have reduced weight to make it compliant, it would have done so. But I don’t actually know that for sure.

      1. What’s the reason for weight being a factor in the scope limit anyway? Shouldn’t # of seats be a sufficient criteria to limit the growth of smaller aircraft? Is the airline gaining something over the unions by having a 76 seater that weighs ten tons more than slowed by current scope? Cargo?

  4. In my probably uninformed mind, the simplest thing to do is to amend the scope clauses to fit the new reality – i.e., newer engines are heavier than older ones, and one way to mitigate that is to add more seats to aircraft.

    It’s a rather simple (but obviously not easy) matter to amend contract language to increase the maximum seat limit of regional aircraft to 80 and adjust the weight limit to include the E175-E2, etc. The current numerical limitations could remain in place, or there could be ways to limit outsourcing based on different criteria, such as a percentage of seats (or seat-miles) as opposed to the number of aircraft.

    But as long as labor unions and the airlines behave the way they usually have in the past, logic and flexibility probably won’t prevail – and I realize there are other factors at work.

    The trend toward upgauging probably isn’t going to end, so what will most likely give is service to smaller communities.

    1. That won’t happen. Alaska was the last remaining major without a scope clause up until the current contract was approved. AS pilots got a scope clause similar to the other majors with a carve out clause for the overweight E175s current at QX.

    2. From a ALPA perspective the E175 probably doesnt meet the 2028 environmental standards so they are thinking they can shrink the regionals out of existence over time.

      1. @dstblj

        Based on some quick research, there are about 1,500 regional aircraft at United, Delta, American, and Alaska. Those aircraft need pilots. That’s a lot of jobs to simply dismiss as irrelevant.

      2. Even if the 1500 aircraft I mentioned are replaced on a 1 for 2 basis at the mainline, that’s still a lot of pilot jobs that would be gone.

          1. I’m going by what the airlines say they have in their fleets. But one pretty sure way to get rid of a pilot shortage is to reduce the number of aircraft being flown. That’s part of my point. Unions usually want to preserve jobs, not eliminate them. But that’s not always possible given the economics of a given situation.

      3. Oh, no need whatsoever to “shrink the regionals out of existence,” they can just start flying “regional” aircraft under the mainline contracts, which is long, long, long, long overdue for the industry, anyway.

    3. “… newer engines are heavier than older ones…”

      … and newer Americans are heavier than older ones :)

  5. CF, What do you see as the future of service to smaller cities once the current generation of RJs age out? It seems like we’ll continue to see upguaging and maybe the introduction of additional bus service, but will Americans be forced to accept turboprops (ATRs) if they want to have continued service to smaller cities?

    1. Daniel – I wish I knew. I figured a lot of these cities would disappear at American once they retired the Dash-8s, but they didn’t. But eventually those 50-seaters have to go away since there is no possible replacement for that except for an ATR. I can’t imagine that happening. I think they’ll just go to fewer flights and eventually end up either maintaining larger jet service or going down to alternative service where pilots aren’t as much of an issue… 9-seat aircraft, Landline buses, or nothing.

      1. @Cranky…what about Part 135s like JSX? There seems to be a niche in this market. What is the status of “SkyWEst Charter” the Part 135 carrier of SkyWest? I can’t see how a 30 seat CRJ-200 will be profitable, and I believe it’s a scam for the EAS program. However, it would seem to me that an ATR42 with 30 seats would be a better option replacing EAS routes all together flying 3-5 times a week to a city instead of 2 flights per days as specified by EAS. Let the market dictate demand.

        For example, instead of PUB-DEN EAS, fly a 30 seat ATR42 (or DHC8-100, or SF3) to PHX or DFW 3-4 times per week, I think there would be great demand for it! And with the lower costs, and market dictating demand (instead of the govenrment) I think it could be profitable.

        1. Spirit FF – I think for SkyWest the Part 135 operation is mostly a way to get more pilots into the company and flow them up. That plus free airplanes to do the work means it doesn’t take all that much for them to deem it successful. Still, it’ll just remain a niche.

    2. Americans in or flying to smaller towns accepted turboprops (Q400s) until very recently when Horizon killed them.

      While not my favorite aircraft, I have flown on it many times and would prefer it over no service on routes where mainline or even E175s don’t work economically.

  6. Possible paths forward as I see them:

    – Unions at mainline US airlines agree to modify scope clause so their airlines can order E175-E2s. The compromise might involve the airlines agreeing to phase out 50- and 70-seat aircraft (happening anyway), and possibly reducing caps on 76-seat aircraft to shift some routes to mainline aircraft. I don’t share Cranky’s belief that this is absolutely not possible. Regional traffic is an important source of passenger volume for mainline routes, so there’s an opportunity to grow the pie here. In particular, there will eventually be a first-mover advantage – if e.g. DL is able to fly an efficient regional fleet, while AA and UA are stuck with aging jets, then DL might be able to win substantial growth in market share to/from smaller airports.

    – Mainlines just maintain their existing regional fleet until it’s not longer economical to do so, and buy E175s to replace retired aircraft if they have routes that justify the capex and opex of buying a “new old” aircraft. Regional airlines shrink over time, and contract to mainly serving cost-insensitive travelers. Smaller airports lose service, destinations, and frequencies. Some fraction of regional routes are replaced by a bus to the nearest major airport.

    – Mainlines go back to buying turboprop aircraft for their regionals. The Q400 and ATR 72 are both still in production, and exempt from scope clauses. Seems unlikely, because turboprops were phased out due to passenger preference, but still possible.

    – A larger share of the current regional market is taken over by independent airlines, like Silver Airways and Cape Air, possibly with interline agreements with the mainlines. This could split the regional market, with business-heavy routes served by the current regionals vs. leisure/VFR-heavy routes served by independents. Double marginalization means that this will still be relatively expensive for the consumer, and not viable on all existing routes.

    – Regionals affiliated with mainlines just gradually die out, and routes get cut or moved into the mainline network.

    1. Alex – Just to be clear, I agree that it is in theory possible. It just requires using negotiating capital to make that happen and I can’t imagine the company will find it worthwhile to spend it on that when there are other things that matter a lot more.

  7. I realize this might be a rudimentary question but why did the original scope clauses have anything to do with MTOW in the first place?

    Seems that the entire issue between the airlines and pilots unions would have been centered around maximum number of passengers. Why did anybody give a damn how much the thing weighed?

    1. Don’t know exactly, but I wonder if it is related to certain airports such as HPN having weight restrictions on aircraft.

    2. Bill – Great question. I’m assuming, but I don’t know for sure, that the pilots wanted to head off any shenanigans like when American started flying 50 seat Fokker 100s out of Love Field. (That had nothing to do with pilots but still…) With MTOW, they could at least prevent anything crazy from happening. But now that they have it, would they really care if it was an E175-E2 or an E1? No. But it’s memorialized in the agreement, so they would be stupid to give it up without getting anything back in return.

      1. Agreed. Talk about unintended consequences from something that might have been very peripheral decades ago.

        Seems that the first airline that sees value in breaking this logjam could get a nice competitive advantage. Then again, probably not, since the others would just use that as a baseline for a similar, if not equivalent, solution.

        It is quite obvious and logical (which is often a problem in today’s society) that plenty of cities will simply fall off the map without 50-75 seat planes. The one flight a day approach used by ULCCs simply does not work for hub and spoke carriers.

  8. Delta saw the end of the RJ era coming ten years ago with their 717 purchase and confirmed the long term trend with their A220 order. Even without a 100 seat mainline aircraft, AA and UA are moving in the same direction although a few years behind. Current pilot pay rates don’t work near as well for RJs of any size as they once did. The E170/5 and CRJ 900 fleets will be stretched as long as they can but wound down as individual airframes time out
    Few mainline pilots will mourn the end of the RJ era but it’s not quite time to throw dirt into the grave

    1. Delta ordered the small mainline planes because their pilot scope clause allowed them to get more large RJs if they did. While we all enjoy a good Tim “Delta saw it coming and is way ahead of aa/ua” spin job, simply not true, Tim.

    2. Delta’s 717’s and A220’s were never meant to replace RJ’s, but rather fill the gap between RJ’s and the 150/60 seat mainline. The 717’s were simply the last in the long line of DC9/MD80/MD88/MD90 aircraft that both Delta and Northwest utilized since the 1960’s.

      1. It is easily verifiable that Delta did use the 717s to replace 50 seat RJs, of which DL had the largest contracted fleet post NW merger and many of which supported the CVG and MEM hubs that were closed. The 717s maintained capacity levels at smaller airports with fewer flights to fewer hubs than the original combined DL/NW route system had. Julie is right that ALPA allowed DL to add more large RJs in return for buying the 717s but that incentive was used for the 717s. The A220 purchase was based on converting large RJs to mainline and that is exactly how Delta has used the A220s, esp. the -100s.
        United had the same RJ scope provisions as Delta but did not pursue either an older generation small mainline aircraft or the new generation A220 or E2. UA still cannot have as many large RJs as DL which is why they went with the CRJ550 configuration. They had the same options and opportunities as DL but retained a much higher percentage of RJs as part of their domestic fleet than DL which has flown a smaller percentage of its domestic flights on RJs of any of AA, AS, DL or UA. It was only a couple years ago that United embarked on NEXT which is to replace regional jet capacity with mainline aircraft even if they will be larger mainline aircraft.
        AA had “richer” RJ scope provisions DL or UA which has largely allowed them to add 65 seat RJs which, while better than 50 seaters in terms of product and economics, still do not have the economics of the 76 seat standard for large RJs.

        And schedules easily show that AA, DL and UA are all replacing many regional jet flights with A319s (which all 3 have) or A220s and 717s, which DL has even as all regional carriers cannot fully staff their aircraft and are paying much higher labor rates when they can.

        DL started the process of replacing regional jets a decade plus ago with the 717s.

        As to the end game, small and medium sized cities will have fewer flights to fewer hubs and possibly fewer airlines serving the cities that retain air service; not every small city that has had 3 or more marketing carriers will still have 3 marketing carriers. Flights will become larger and larger in gauge, moving up from small to large regional jets and from large regional jets to mainline.
        And then, at some point, the remaining large RJs will become technologically and economically obsolete.

        1. A simple “you’re right. My initial comment was wrong.” Would suffice, Tim.

          No need for the usual 8 paragraph obfuscation and attempt to defend an incorrect statement. Delta was trying to get more large RJs ten years ago. The idea that they had a crystal ball and decided to overpay for mainline pilot rates for small planes ten years early is ludicrous and you know it.

          If delta was actually getting the 717s in a tenuous bet that a global pandemic would hit and regional pilot rates would go up a decade later, someone should fire their fleet and finance team.
          Delta got the 717s because they received more large RJs. End of story. The cost of high labor CASM on the 717 was offset by the benefit of large RJ labor CASM along with some associated revenue benefit from having correctly sized planes. The opposite of the weird after the fact story you’re trying to spin that delta had some Joseph/Egypt vision of the future ten years ago.

          1. Julie
            The economics of 50 seat RJ flying was deteriorating 10years ago because it costs less to operate 1 717 than 2 50 seaters and the 717 still has 10 more seats

            Delta intended to retire the 717s but is reactivating them while removing its remaining 50 seaters. The A220 is replacing 76 seaters.

            The trend toward higher cost RJs began 10 years ago. The industry has been upgauging domestic to larger aircraft. It isn’t at all a stretch to see that Delta saw that trend beginning 10 years ago and accelerating more recently even as its competitors moved much slower but are now doing what Delta started

            1. So many things to correct here. I doubt your claim that 1 717 (with mainline crew) costs less to operate than 2 50 seaters. That’s maybe remotely possible today but not 10 years ago.

              The A220 is not replacing 76-seaters. I LOL’d at this one. DL has maxed out its large RJ scope and if you see any 76 seater leaving the fleet, it’s only due to scope limitations.

              It’s quite a stretch to claim that DL saw the writing on the wall a decade ago and pay higher costs on the 717s while there were plenty of RJs at much lower cost available at the time. If I recall, the 717 deal was opportunistic because WN wanted to get rid of them and it bought additional scope room for DL without spending much capex. I acknowledge Richard Anderson was a genius ceo who set DL on the right path only for Ed to destroy it, but airlines don’t have the cash to make such large risks like that.

              The reason regional fleets have been upgauging is because scope clauses changed to allow 76 seaters, not because airlines want to pay mainline crews on what is essentially regional aircraft.

    3. If smaller mainline aircraft is such a great solution to the regional problem, then why aren’t we seeing more of it? Flying mainline aircraft means mainline labor costs which doesn’t make sense in most cases. The real problem is pilot pay which is way too high. Pilots think the world revolves around them but they are in for a surprise when they realize their selfishness, narcissism, and greed has resulted in manufacturers developing pilot-less aircraft which is occurring as we speak. The public won’t accept a pilot-less aircraft immediately but it will over time. Remember the public reaction to the two-engine A300.

  9. I really don’t understand why the airlines are limited on weight of regional jets on top of capacity limits? The smaller jets have an important piece of the American aviation industry since we are not well connected by high speed rail (and even slow speed rail is extremely limited).

  10. I personally like to think that Bombardier will make a 50-seat version of the CRJ-200 with the wing shape of the Global 7500, the windows, interior, cockpit dimensions, and nose section of the C-Series, and a cabin at least as wide as the E-Jet. I’ve heard it been suggested that Bombardier could stretch the Challenger 300 or Embraer could stretch the Praetor into a 50-seater. Maybe Bombardier could just stretch the Challenger 300 airframe for about 50, place the windows higher and make them bigger, and call it the CRJ-300. The Challenger 300’s existing 7’2″ cabin would allow for wider seats in a three-abreast configuration. In Embraer’s case, I’m sure they’d have to widen the Praetor’s fuselage a bit for an airliner application, so it won’t be like another CRJ-200. They’d also have to raise the window height. Now the CRJ-550 seems to be able to operate anywhere the CRJ-200 does. However, it’s based on an airframe that’s no longer made, and it would most likely take lots of effort for Mitsubishi to restart production, assuming they’ll even ever want to do that in the first place. Maybe a Challenger 300 stretch or Praetor stretch (with some structural modifications) is in order. In the absence of any emissions legislation, restarting production of the CRJ-700 to make CRJ-550s out of them would definitely make sense (despite the physical possibility of significantly more efficient engines with at least 15% better fuel consumption). The way it is in practice, with increasingly stringent emissions legislation always on the near horizon in the near future, restarting CRJ-700 production to turn them into CRJ-550s wouldn’t be a commercially attractive option (among other reasons). So to meet any upcoming emissions legislation, a stretched, slightly modified, and re-engined (hopefully with GE NG34) Challenger 300 or Praetor would probably be the most realistic option for the future of the 50-seat market. Embraer made the very unfortunate miscalculation of adding capacity with the E175-E2, making it two feet and five inches longer than the E175-E1, and consequently, heavier than the E175-E1 (combined with the PW1700G, which is about 1,200 lbs heavier than the CF34-8E) – resulting in an aircraft heavier than the scope clause maximum allowance of 86,000 lbs. The only way forward for Embraer from here, would be to make an E175-E3 with exactly the same dimensions as the E175-E1 – with lightweight, ultra-reliable, ultra-efficient GE NG34 engines. GE could finally make the NG34 a reality for all regional jet applications, with carbon-fiber-composite fan blades and more technologies derived from the GE9X and Passport. Making any engine, no matter what technology is used, with the 99.99% dispatch reliability rate of the CF34-3B1, would be a pretty tall order for anybody, but I’m sure it’s physically possible.

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