Bombardier has confirmed it is in discussions with Japanese firm Mitsubishi Heavy Industries regarding the sale of its regional jet programme.
The central fuselage of the CRJ aircraft series is designed and manufactured in Bombardier's Northern Ireland Aerostructures operation, which the Canadian giant put up for sale last month.
Around 3,600 people work across its sites in Belfast, Newtownabbey, Dunmurry and Newtownards.
The CRJ jets range has models that can carry 50 to 100 passengers. Bombardier took the unusual step of confirming the negotiations with Mitsubishi following a report on north American aviation website The Air Current.
One of the core companies of the Japanese industrial giant, which is best known in Europe for its cars, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) is primarily an engineering, electronics and aerospace firm based in Tokyo. It also owns 10% of Toyota.
Its aerospace operation, which includes a base in Ontario, has been developing its own range of regional aircraft since 2008.
MHI also manufactures aerospace components, including fuselage panels, for US airframer Boeing.
According to reports in The Air Current, Bombardier had been negotiating with a number of potential buyers for its CRJ programme but has progressed to exclusive discussions with Mitsubishi, which is reportedly interested in bolstering its own regional jet programme.
It is understood that a potential announcement of a deal could come as early as the Paris Air Show, which is due to start on June 17.
Along with the sale of its Northern Ireland operation, the offloading of the CRJ series would signal Bombardier's exit from commercial aviation.
In a statement yesterday, a spokesperson for the Canadian group said: "While Bombardier does not generally comment publicly on market speculation or rumours, in light of recent media reports, Bombardier believes it is prudent to advise stakeholders that it is in discussions with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd with respect to its CRJ programme. We will not further comment on the nature of the discussions.
"Before any agreement can be reached, further review and analysis by Bombardier management and approval by Bombardier's board of directors are required, and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd must complete its due diligence review and own analysis and approval processes, which are outside of Bombardier's control.
"There can be no assurance that any such discussions will ultimately lead to an agreement."