It seems faintly ridiculous now, but when the first regional jet was unveiled in the early 1990s, many in the airline industry thought it was an idea that simply wouldn’t fly.
The ‘hub and spoke’ model used bigger aircraft to link an airline’s base city with other major population centers. Smaller communities had turboprop services flying to the hub. So what was the point of a 50-100 seater jet?
In fact, turboprop services were limited to short routes so that any town more than 300 miles from a hub found itself cut off – too far to travel for the small planes, but not busy enough to make the bigger planes profitable.
So the arrival of the regional jet solved a problem that many in the industry hadn’t even realised existed, bringing on board tens of millions of new airline passengers. This both kickstarted regional growth and transformed the airline industry.
And as the aviation industry continues to grow at a dizzying pace, it is the regional jet that is facilitating much of the expansion.
Demand soars high
According to he International Air Transport Association (IATA), there were 3.8 billion air passengers in 2016, a number it predicts will soar to 7.2 billion by 2035. That’s nearly double current levels.
Much of this increase will come from the Asia-Pacific region, with China set to overtake the United States as the largest aviation market in the world in 2024 and India set to displace the UK and take third place the following year.
The arrival of next-generation, fuel-efficient, long-haul jets means that less busy international routes are becoming viable. Connecting Beijing to Madrid or Dallas to Seoul would not have made financial sense using older, more fuel-hungry aircraft.
But it is the regional jet that is at the heart of much of the new aviation market growth. In 2016, the world’s 10 busiest airline routes all took off and landed in the Asia-Pacific region, and all were short haul flights.
Asia in the air
The industry’s growth holds significant economic promise for the Asia-Pacific region, with an additional 2.5 billion passengers estimated to be flying each year to, from, and within the region by the mid-2030s.
And one in every five global air travellers will be going to, from, or within China by 2034.
New routes are opening all the time as the growing middle classes demand access to air travel. While the proportion of middle-income households in the region will still be lower than that found in more mature economies, the absolute numbers are enormous.
Regional jets mean that these routes do not have to rely on the hub and spoke model. Point-to-point travel, which links communities directly rather than via a hub, is a massive growth market.
Establishing new routes opens up new markets for both passengers and the movement of goods. The airline industry already supports over 24 million jobs across the Asia-Pacific region, with a total economic impact exceeding $500 billion.
The positive economic impact of regional flights has been demonstrated by researchers at the London School of Economics. They carried out a statistical analysis of US airports and the economic activity in the surrounding area over a period of 17 years.
LSE found that adding a new destination for flights in the US can lead to between 98 and 223 new jobs and the opening of between 4 and 15 new businesses.
While the growth in regional aviation will deliver many benefits to connected communities, it also brings challenges.
This rapid rise in air travel comes at a time when concerns about climate change have created huge pressure to lower emissions. The industry needs to ensure that a doubling in air traffic does not double the potential environmental impact.
In 2016, 68 countries whose air traffic comprises nearly 90% of international aviation signed on to the Carbon Offsetting Reduction Scheme for International Aviation, or CORSIA. CORSIA is a statement of intent to achieve carbon-neutral growth, starting as early as 2021, with 2020 levels as the baseline.
In other words, in the years beyond 2020, overall emissions should remain capped at 2020 levels. To achieve this goal, airlines need to meet demand with more efficient aircraft.
Clean sheet innovation
Rapid growth at this time of increased environmental concern means the regional jet market is experiencing both new challenges and new opportunities. And that makes it an ideal time for a new aircraft to be taking to the skies.
The MRJ – Mitsubishi Regional Jet – is an entirely new plane, developed from scratch by MHI’s Mitsubishi Aircraft Corporation.
With the largest aerospace manufacturers focussed on bigger aircraft and the regional jet market currently offering very limited choice, the MRJ heralds a significant shakeup in the sector.
With no pre-existing platforms to conform to and no existing component catalogue to incorporate, the MRJ presented a completely clean sheet for designers and engineers.
What they came up with is the most efficient regional jet ever made, with the lowest cost to operate of any aircraft in its class.
The MRJ is the first aircraft to use Pratt & Whitney’s new PurePower engines, which require 60% fewer turbine airfoils than conventional turbofan engines. That reduces maintenance time and cost. The MRJ also has the lowest fuel burn in its class thanks to this engine, as well as advanced aerodynamics and wing design.
Offering these cost efficiencies alongside outstanding passenger comfort, the aircraft is expected to quickly become a significant player in its class.
A new standard
In its two-decade forecast, Boeing projects that worldwide demand for aircraft will top 39,000 planes in the next 20 years. Of those, over 15,000 will be headed to Asian markets.
Many of those will be regional jets.
Mitsubishi forecasts that over 5,000 70- to 100-seat regional jets will need to be delivered by 2048 to meet growing demand, particularly from China, which is expected to make up 26% of the regional jet market in the Asia Pacific region in 20 years’ time.
Traditionally, airlines have had a very limited choice when it comes to the aircraft that can fly these routes.
The arrival of the MRJ changes that, setting a new standard in comfort and environmental performance as the regional jet continues to shape the world’s aviation industry