Failure of Mitsubishi SpaceJet Holds Lessons for Future of Industry

The development of a domestically manufactured passenger plane has finally been forced to a halt. Why did the project fail despite the huge amount of money, including public funds, spent on it? For the sake of maintaining and developing the aircraft industry, the causes of the failure must be examined.

Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Ltd. has announced that it will discontinue development of the Mitsubishi SpaceJet (MSJ), a domestically made passenger jet. The repeatedly delayed project had been frozen in October 2020.

The company said that the protracted development process has reduced the competitiveness of its features and equipment. It also cited the possibility that it would be required to adapt to next-generation fuel and electrification.

The company decided to halt the project because it would take several more years to obtain a Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry “type certificate,” which is required to put the aircraft into service, and is expected to incur additional costs of several hundred billion yen.

It was a huge project in which MHI invested about ¥1 trillion and the government provided a subsidy of ¥50 billion. The company had already received orders for about 300 aircraft from Japanese airlines and other firms.

The aircraft industry encompasses a wide range of related businesses. MHI’s withdrawal from the project is a disappointment, as it was also intended to strengthen the foundation of Japan’s manufacturing industry.

MHI decided to launch the project in 2008, initially aiming to deliver the first aircraft in 2013. However, delays related to component procurement, electrical wiring design changes and other factors caused delivery to be postponed six times.

MHI supplies aircraft components to companies including U.S. aircraft maker Boeing Co., and it has a wealth of expertise as an aircraft component manufacturer. However, the company lacked the capacity to design and manufacture an entire aircraft on its own.

Even so, the company initially was stuck on the idea of developing its own aircraft. Later, the company hired many foreign engineers, but the effective ties between them and Japanese engineers were not forged. These are believed to be some of the reasons for the failure.

At a press conference, MHI President Seiji Izumisawa said, “We lacked understanding of the process of acquiring a type certificate for civilian aircraft.” The factors behind the failure must be examined anew and used as lessons for the development of various technologies in the future.

The government, which has encouraged the development of Japan-made jet airliners, also bears a great deal of responsibility. It should be involved in the postmortem analysis.

On the other hand, the MSJ has flown more than 3,900 hours of test flights to date, surely producing a certain amount of knowledge.

Japan, the United Kingdom and Italy concluded an agreement in December to jointly develop state-of-the-art next-generation fighter jets with MHI joining the project as a core participant. The experience and human resources of the MSJ project should be used in the development of the fighter jet.

In the Japanese aircraft industry, a Honda Motor Co. subsidiary has been No. 1 in the world for five straight years in deliveries of business jets for transporting small groups of people. There are also many parts manufacturers with high technological capabilities. It is important for the government to restructure its strategy to strengthen the foundation of the aircraft industry.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Feb. 14, 2023)