For a region that has seen considerable growth in airline traffic over the past 20 years, there is a remarkably small presence of crossover narrowbody jets in the Middle East. The vast majority of single-aisle aircraft designed for the 90-150-seat market operating in the region are the smallest members of the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737 families. 

To appreciate the challenge the crossover jet OEMs have, the only ones currently operating are two Embraer 195s at Royal Jordanian (which also has three of the smaller E175). None of the second-generation E2 family has yet been ordered. Bombardier’s C Series has 33 orders in the Middle East (45 if you count the 12 CS300s ordered by Egyptair). 

Embraer’s 2017-36 forecast expects the Middle East fleet to grow to 220 aircraft from 80. Raul Villaron, Embraer Commercial Aviation vice president of sales for the Middle East and Africa, is confident the E2 family will make inroads. 

“The Middle East is seeing increasing demand for intraregional travel. Many markets remain underserved or simply not served,” he says. “The geographic position of the Middle East, and the unique levels of service there, has allowed carriers to capture a significant share of long-haul market growth. Similarly, intra-Middle East flow will be an increasingly large part of the region’s traffic, either connecting through the major hubs, or in point-to-point operations linking secondary cities.” 

Villaron points out that 60% of intraregion flights depart with fewer than 120 passengers. “But these have been served inefficiently, with large capacity narrowbody aircraft at low load factors. [It is] a rightsizing need E-Jets can easily solve at significantly higher profits. And there is some significant low-hanging fruit,” he observes. 

The E2 family has significant trip cost advantages and similar seat costs, even when compared to the bigger A320neo and 737 MAX. It allows operators to tackle thin markets with lower risk but with a highly competitive seat cost. Likewise, it allows the airlines to take up high-density markets with an increased level of frequencies and a major trip cost advantage. 

While Mitsubishi’s current models, the MRJ90 (currently in flight testing) and MRJ70 are at the bottom end of the crossover jet capacity spread, there is still the possibility of a stretched version to move it toward the top end. The company’s current forecast (2017-36) for the 60-100-seat segment predicts 119 deliveries. 

“In the Middle East, we believe there are market opportunities that can support 70- to 90-seat [aircraft]; by way of growing regional operations that strengthen an airline’s network and further build connectivity. This is what the MRJ is purpose-built for,” explains Jorge Abando, Mitsubishi Aircraft Corp. vice president of sales and marketing.

Superjet International’s forecast sees the 91-120-seat segment achieving 130 deliveries over 2016-35. Meanwhile, Bombardier predicts that in the Middle East “a total of 450 aircraft will be delivered in the 60- to 150-seat segment. 200 aircraft will be delivered in the large regional aircraft category, whereas 250 aircraft will be delivered in the small single-aisle category [crossover narrowbody jets]”. 

Even to achieve those figures, in a region where at times widebodies are used for intraregional services, crossover jet OEMs must change Middle East carriers’ mindset. “The pursuit of lower unit costs has always been one driving factor for deploying larger equipment, which may mean sacrificing viable second- and third-tier markets that help build connectivity,” notes Abando. Clearly those lower tiers need to be addressed. 

Villaron concurs: “Regional aviation remains an elastic term in the Middle East. Indeed, there is plenty of room to rightsize from large narrowbodies and even widebodies (which are often used as de facto regional aircraft) down to crossover jets. Stage length and demand would be better met with less capacity and more frequency.” 

The OEMs have more than the network carriers in their sights. The bigger Middle-East low-fare airlines have committed to large fleets of A320neos and 737 MAXs, but that does not mean they can’t develop low-cost services on thinner routes with fewer passengers per day each way. 

“With the lower-cost MRJ, this introduces noncommonality advantages even for the bigger low-fare airlines, such that they don’t have to sacrifice market share,” says Abando. “In addition, the MRJ’s larger cabin design will provide optimal comfort and allow for a consistent product offering, unlike today’s older and conventional regional aircraft.” 

Villaron takes the argument for crossover jet use by low-fare carriers even further. “One of the many assets of the crossover jet is its versatility: to open new low and mid-density markets; feed major hubs; ride the peaks and troughs be they daily, seasonal or economic—by matching aircraft capacity to market demand and offering high frequencies in high-yield business markets,” he emphasizes. 

“The ‘one size fits all’ approach is long past its ‘best buy’ date. Multiclass services and multiple types of aircraft to serve different missions are the key to long-term sustainability,” Villaron continues. “Legacy airline business models and low-cost business models are converging. Single-type fleets are no longer the most profitable and they will struggle to deliver continued growth, and certainly not profitable growth.”