Two of Mitsubishi Aircraft Corp.’s most high-profile orders for the Mitsubishi Regional Jet (MRJ) are with US regional airline operators SkyWest Inc. and Trans States Holdings, but there is a big caveat on the 100 and 50 MRJs, respectively, that SkyWest and Trans States have on their books. Because of scope clauses currently in major US airlines’ pilot labor contracts, SkyWest and Trans States will not be able to operate the jets under a capacity purchase agreement for a US major absent a labor contract renegotiation.

Pilot labor contracts at US major airlines currently disallow the carriers from outsourcing regional flying to an aircraft with more than 76 seats or a maximum takeoff weight (MTOW) of more than 86,000 lb. The MRJ90, which is set to begin delivering to the US market in 2017, can seat up to 92 passengers and is expected to have a MTOW of more than 87,300 lb.

SkyWest and Trans States, which combined hold 150 of the 223 MRJ firm orders, are expected to configure their MRJs with 76 seats including a first-class section. But the MRJ90 is going to be at least 1,300 lb. over the weight limitation and there is nothing the regional operators can do about that, which means the race is on to see which comes first: scope clause relief at one or more of the major US airlines or MRJ90s ready to be delivered to SkyWest and Trans States.

“The weight restriction, because it is an artificial barrier, will have to be lifted,” Mitsubishi SVP-global leasing and asset management Gergory Alberts said at the ISTAT Americas 2015 conference. He did acknowledge that “the timing is a little bit questionable” in terms of whether there will be scope clause relief by 2017, but insisted, “We’re pretty bullish that our customers in the US will prevail and by the time we deliver those aircraft, the scope clauses will be relaxed.”

He added, “If there is some sort of delivery delay [to the US operators] because scope clauses aren’t a perfect fit, there are other customers [in other parts of the world] that can move up and take delivery of those aircraft.”

Along with SkyWest and Trans States, All Nippon Airways is expected to begin taking delivery of MRJ90s in 2017. Other MRJ customers include Yangon-based Air Mandalay, which has just six on order and is slated to take its first delivery in 2018; the new Eastern Air Lines, based in Miami, which has 20 on order with deliveries expected to start in 2019; and Japan Airlines, the next biggest MRJ customer after SkyWest and Trans States with 32 on order and deliveries set to commence in 2021.

Alberts said pilot unions should understand that the MRJ90’s weight is a function of new technology that will bring increased efficiencies to regional flying and the aircraft is “not a threat to the US pilot community.”

Meanwhile, in April Mitsubishi pushed back the first flight of the MRJ from the June quarter to “September or October of this year,” but still plans for a second quarter 2017 first delivery. First delivery was originally supposed to occur in the 2014 first quarter.

The first flight delay was the latest schedule adjustment for the MRJ program, which was originally slated to achieve first flight in the 2012 second quarter. Once the first flight test aircraft, an MRJ90, gets off the ground, Mitsubishi said it plans an “intensive” flight test program to keep the current delivery schedule on track.

Mitsubishi will eventually have five MRJs in the flight test program. By the 2016 second quarter, four of the five flight test MRJs will be flying in the US. All five will initially start flight testing in Japan, but only the fifth flight test aircraft will remain in Japan.