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Mitsubishi Heavy freezes SpaceJet development as virus clouds outlook

This March 2020 photo shows a new prototype of Mitsubishi Aircraft Corp.'s SpaceJet passenger jet at Nagoya airport in Aichi Prefecture, central Japan. (Kyodo)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. said Friday it will freeze its development of Japan's first domestically manufactured passenger jet, hit by repeated delays and the global coronavirus pandemic.

    The freeze comes as the pandemic has changed the aviation industry landscape with air travel demand almost evaporating. It also deals a serious blow to the country's long-held desire to build a commercial airplane for the first time in half a century since making turboprop planes.

    "We are taking a pause" in the development of the Mitsubishi SpaceJet, President Seiji Izumisawa said during an online press briefing as he unveiled a business plan for three years from fiscal 2021.

    "Taking a pause means we will neither spend huge amounts of money nor develop with a specific schedule in mind for the time being," Izumisawa said.

    Mitsubishi Heavy will continue work to obtain a type certificate, which is necessary for commercial aircraft, based on data collected from over 3,900 hours of test flights.

    The budget for the SpaceJet project between fiscal 2021 and 2023 will be sharply cut to 20 billion yen ($191 million), compared with the 60 billion yen for fiscal 2020 alone.

    The SpaceJet is designed to carry around 90 passengers with what the company calls "game-changing" fuel efficiency.

    Delivery of the jet, previously known as the Mitsubishi Regional Jet, to All Nippon Airways Co. was originally planned for 2013 but has been repeatedly postponed to 2021 or later.

    The Japanese government has backed Mitsubishi Heavy's regional jet project launched in 2008 in hope of fostering the nation's aviation industry, which lacked expertise and experience in developing jet aircraft.

    The SpaceJet would be the first domestically manufactured commercial plane since the turboprop plane YS-11, which was manufactured in the 1960s and 1970s.

    With around 1 trillion yen poured into development, Mitsubishi Heavy has sought to compete with Brazil's Embraer SA to capture growing demand for regional jets as major airlines have shifted more to smaller and more fuel-efficient aircraft.

    Before the pandemic, Mitsubishi Heavy expected global demand of about 5,000 planes with up to 100 passengers over the next two decades. It has acquired the regional jet business of Canada's Bombardier Inc.

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