(Mainichi: December 8, 2015 – p. 10)
By Hironori Takechi
As Japan’s first indigenous small passenger jet, the Mitsubishi Regional Jet took off successfully on November 11. Mitsubishi Aircraft, a subsidiary of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, is taking on a daunting task that could determine the future of Japan’s aviation industry, as it is expected to thrive as a core sector like the automobile industry. The MRJ is indispensable for adding depth to Japan’s manufacturing expertise.
Mitsubishi Aircraft Senior Executive Vice President Nobuo Kishi, who leads the project, likens MRJ’s maiden flight to climbing up to the sixth station on Mt. Fuji, meaning that “it’s easy to reach the fifth station because you can go there by car, but as you ascend the mountain peak, it gets tougher.” This view is widely shared by people involved in the project.
The first delivery of the MRJ is scheduled to take place in a year and half. By then, pilot tests on safety and fuel efficiency must be completed. To receive government clearance, a flight test of 2500 hours is required. Tension is growing within the firm that a major single flaw could result in a delay in the delivery. Politicians, bureaucrats, and business circles are not pinning high hopes on the MRJ out of romantic sentiment toward a resurgence of domestic passenger planes. They expect the MRJ to broaden Japan’s aviation industry and propel the sector’s growth.
Japan’s aviation output, which includes military-use aircraft, stands at about 1.3 trillion yen, which is about one-fortieth of the domestic automobile industry. Production of parts used in midsize or larger aircraft manufactured by Boeing and other firms is on the rise, but Japan is far behind the U.S., which churns out aircraft worth about 12 trillion yen. The MRJ is designed as a regional jet capable of flying about 3,000 km. It is expected that at least 5,000 small passenger aircraft will be in demand down the road, and MRJ is looking to control half of that share.
Japan faces the urgent task of establishing new industries to keep the foundation of the domestic manufacturing industry stable and diverse. The MRJ has the potential of laying the groundwork for aviation production. If that happens, production can grow by several hundred billion yen at a yearly pace.
To build the foundation of domestic aviation industry, two challenges need to be addressed. One is to hone management skills that can integrate processes from design to production, sale, and maintenance. The other is to foster and secure human resources.
Domestic manufacturers have long served as subcontractors, so they have not developed the expertise to integrate the passenger aircraft operations. Meanwhile, European and U.S. rivals have been steadily building up their capabilities to handle multiple operations. Japanese automakers have won the trust of consumers with their integrated management knowhow, and such expertise should be applied to the aviation sector as well.
It is also necessary to attract foreign companies with ample aviation production expertise for domestic human resources development in the aviation sector. About 60-70% of parts used in MRJ, which include engines and interiors, are sourced from overseas. Domestic parts manufacturers are not yet ready to handle aviation production.
Hideaki Omiya, chairman of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, describes the MRJ as a “kindergartener.” A lot of support needs to be extended until it grows into an “adult.” The government, manufacturers, and partner firms will need to offer assistance over the long term. (Abridged)