Regional jet specialist MHI RJ Aviation Group (MHIRJ) sees a long future for the Bombardier CRJ regional jet, but warns of a shortage of pilots and maintainers the industry is facing.
A wholly-owned unit of Quebec-based Japanese company Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, MHIRJ derives most of its revenue from MRO work related to CRJs. It also has an aerospace engineering center and offers consulting services.
Ross Mitchell, vice president of strategy and business development at MHIRJ, notes that the company has 30 maintenance lines, making it the world’s largest MRO provider for regional aircraft.
And given the company’s experience under Bombardier – MHI acquired the CRJ program in 2020 – Mitchell, speaking to FlightGlobal at the recent Farnborough Airshow, said the unit offers capabilities unique that are usually only found in major aircraft manufacturers.
Cirium fleet data indicates that there are 1,170 CRJs in service, with 465 in storage. The dominant types are the 50-seat CRJ200, with nearly 400 in air service, and the CRJ900, with nearly 420. The majority of these jets are operated on North American regional routes by carriers owned or affiliated with the three major US carriers: American Airlines, Delta Airlines and United Airlines.
Although the CRJ is no longer in production, Mitchell says it is a crucial element for air operations in North America, providing power to hubs. In addition, no new aircraft meet the scope clause requirements in pilot contracts. Scope clause agreements effectively limit the maximum take-off weight of aircraft used for regional operations.
“They can easily go on for another few decades,” says Mitchell of CRJ’s fleet. “There’s nothing on the horizon to really replace those planes.”
He observes that the development Embraer E175-E2 does not meet the limits of the scope clause. Indeed, in February, the Brazilian manufacturer suspended development of the type for three years, and it will not enter service until 2027.
He adds that the CRJ also has much lower ownership costs – given that they are largely reimbursed – compared to buying a new plane.
“You might as well run [CRJs] because the next aircraft you bring gives you no economic benefit and has higher ownership costs,” he says. “We are a key part of the value chain to ensure these aircraft continue to fly into the future – and customers want them to continue flying.”
As to whether turboprops can supplant the CRJ, Ross says they don’t mesh well with the hub-and-spoke networks favored by major carriers. Also, the US market is not very receptive to turboprops, as passengers, according to Ross, prefer jets. He adds that turboprops do not have the speed to keep up with hub schedules.
Despite MHIRJ’s strong position in the CRJ market, Mitchell points out that the company is always on the lookout for new opportunities. On the MRO front, the company’s new hangar in West Virginia will be large enough to accommodate both CRJs and larger planes should the company venture to support other types.
The MHIRJ is also looking to the long-term future of the CRJ, with the announcement in October 2021 that it will cooperate with experimental propulsion specialist ZeroAvia on the potential of hydrogen-electric power for regional jets.
Under this agreement, MHIRJ provides design, engineering and certification services to ZeroAvia, supporting not only the development of new aircraft using the powerplant technology, but also the potential for “green retrofit”.
As for the challenges, Mitchell says the shortage of pilots and maintainers is a big problem for the regional jet market. At the start of the pandemic, he says, major airlines offered retirement packages to pilots. Now that the sector is recovering, airlines are bringing in regional jet captains to operate larger planes.
Since the United States requires co-pilots to have 1,500 hours before sitting in the right seat, and captains need 1,000 hours beyond that, an imbalance is created between the number of co-pilots and of captains. This creates training challenges and also makes it difficult to recruit people.
“The 1,500 hour rule had an impact even before Covid, and Covid exacerbated it,” says Mitchell. “Policy changes need to be made…and the industry needs to find ways to fund this resource as it has created a problem which has become acute over the past few months.”
Mitchell also observes that the pool of maintenance personnel in the United States is aging.
“There is also a desperate need for funding there, and more training programs, because the average service technician is very close to retirement age now, and new service technicians coming into the industry are not enough to replace those who leave.”
To help alleviate this problem, the MHIRJ promotes aeronautical careers to young people. The MHIRJ also wants more women to join the industry, whether as maintainers or pilots. When it comes to the company’s strategic priorities, Mr. Mitchell says the number one issue is, indeed, the issue of the workforce.