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Boeing 717

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The twinjet Boeing 717 is Boeing Commercial Airplanes' smallest commercial airliner intended for the 100-seater market. It entered service in September 1999, making it one of the newest airliners on the market, and yet one of the oldest - the 717 is a renamed McDonnell Douglas MD-95, which itself was based on the venerable Douglas DC-9 that first flew in 1965. On January 14, 2005, the Boeing Company announced that it will discontinue production of the 717 in 2006. This will end the long history of McDonnell Douglas commercial aircraft in Long Beach, CA.

Boeing had apparently skipped the "717" model designation when the 720 (not as some claim, the 727) became the airliner which followed the 707. But "717" had, in fact, been used by the company to refer to the military version of the 707, which the U.S. Air Force redesignated the KC-135 Stratotanker, which has a smaller cabin diameter than the 707. It had also been used to promote an early design of the 720 to airlines, before it was modifed to meet market demands as the eventual 720. This left "717" available until the MD-95 was rebranded.

Contents

Early background

The last third of the 20th century had been a difficult one for aircraft manufacturers. The one-time undisputed market leader Douglas, faced with declining sales of its Douglas DC-8 line and stiff competition from the 737 for its DC-9, found the task of financing the planned wide-body trijet DC-10 beyond its means and was forced to merge with military specialist McDonnell in 1967.

Post merger, McDonnell Douglas (MDC) continued to struggle: the DC-8 production line closed in 1972; by chasing the same market niche, the DC-10 and the rival Lockheed Tristar both lost money. Only the DC-9 continued to sell well: almost 1000 were built up to 1982, when it was stretched and renamed the MD-80 Series. Over 1100 MD-80s were delivered through the 1980s and early 1990s, but the follow-on revision, the MD-90, sold poorly, with just 117 made. It has however outsold the 737-600 and Airbus A318, leaving one to wonder if the problem isn't the aircraft itself, but the lack of a family of aircraft to support it.

Troubled start

The MD-95—the aircraft that would eventually become the 717—was announced in 1991, initially as the MD-87-105, a re-shortened version of the stretched MD-80 family that took it back to about the same size as the DC-9 Series 30 of the 1960s. It was soon renamed "MD-95" to reflect the anticipated first delivery date, but in the event MDC could not find an airline willing to place a firm order to start production against until that time.

In October 1995, US discount carrier ValuJet signed an order for 50 MD-95s, plus 50 options. Generally, new aircraft have one or more large, well-established high-prestige airlines as launch customers. Launching MD-95 production on the basis of a single order from a two-year-old start-up company with doubtful finances was highly optimistic, and seen as a reflection of the difficulty MDC was having selling aircraft.

In December 1996 Boeing made a $13 billion takeover offer for McDonnell Douglas and the merger became official the following year. Boeing was quick to get rid of the entire MDC commercial product line, save only the MD-95, which was re-named the Boeing 717, and (for a short while longer) the freighter version of the MD-11.

Most industry observers expected that the MD-95 would soon be dropped also. To begin with, Boeing had no more success selling the 717 than McDonnell Douglas, and even the original order for 50 was no certainty in the chaotic post-deregulation US airline market - a customer must not only want an aircraft, it must be able to pay for it. (In the event, ValuJet, now known as AirTran Airways, would meet with considerable success and is now operating 73 717-200 aircraft, as well as 5 new 737-700s. They continue to accept deliveries on both the 717 and the 737.)

Boeing took a handful of small orders from leasing companies and minor operators, and a second large order, for 50 717s from TWA, but following the dramatic slump in airline traffic caused by reaction to the September 11th incident in the USA, Boeing announced a review of the type's future.

After much deliberation, it was decided to proceed. Despite the lack of orders, Boeing had confidence in the 717s fundamental suitability to the 100-seat market, and in the long-term size of that market. Additionally, the former Douglas plant at Long Beach was almost idle - besides the 717s, there was only a handful of C-17s to keep it busy. Perhaps most importantly of all, dropping the 717 would mean abandoning the 100-seat market to Airbus and their planned A318: from a marketing point of view, any airline that bought A318s would have a powerful reason to then buy A320s and A321s instead of 737s to take advantage of common parts and crewing, if the airline didn't have many 737s in its fleet already. Instead of using the 100-seat class aircraft, airliners might have chosen to use a larger aircraft, but use only half of its seat, half of its fuel capacity, and so on to achieve more commonality with other aircrafts in their fleet rather than have a diverse range of aircrafts in their fleets.

Finding a niche, turnaround

The wisdom of the Boeing decision gradually became apparent. Early 717 operators were delighted with the reliability and passenger appeal of the type and ordered more. The small Australian regional airline Impulse is an example. Impulse took a long-term lease on five 717s in early 2000 to begin an aggressive expansion into mainline routes. To the surprise of few, the ambitious move could not be sustained in competition with the majors, and Impulse sold out to Qantas in May 2001. This left Qantas with a more-or-less unwanted handful of "warmed-over DC-9s" to spoil the efficiency of its fleet of large Boeing and small BAe 146 jets.

Within a few months, however, the abilities of the 717 became clear. It is roomier and faster than the BAe-146, cheaper to operate, and has achieved an outstanding dispatch reliability of 99.6%. Maintenance costs are very low: a check C inspection, for example, takes just three days and is required only once in 4500 flying hours. (For comparison, the old DC-9, which was always well-regarded by engineering departments for its fuss-free nature, needed 21 days for a check C.) The new Rolls Royce BR715 engine design is highly modular: none of the line replaceable units takes more than an hour to exchange, and about a third of them can be changed in under 15 minutes. Boeing claims a better than 10% operating cost advantage over the A318.

The result has been that many 717 operators, even accidental ones like Qantas, have become converts to the type. Qantas has bought more 717s to bring their fleet up to 14, and it is the front-running candidate to replace their large BAe 146 fleet as well. Other significant orders have come from Hawaiian Airlines and Midwest Express and Pembroke Leasing.

After 19 worldwide 717 sales in 2000, and just 6 in 2001, Boeing took 32 717 orders in 2002, despite the massive industry downturn.

The 100-seat market was overcrowded until 2001, but several potential competitors have disappeared. BAe cancelled their Avro RJX (an updated BAe 146 with modern engines); Fairchild Dornier closed their doors, taking the 728/928 project with them, and Bombardier cancelled their new BRJ in favour of a less ambitious stretched 90-seat CRJ.

The remaining players are Boeing themselves, Airbus with the A318, and Embraer with the ERJ 195. The existing worldwide fleet is largely made up of aging twinjets with relatively high operating costs, notably the DC-9, early model 737s, and the Fokker F100, plus the newer four-engined BAe 146, which is a prime prospect for refurbishment.

End of Production

In January 2005, Boeing announced that it planned to end production of the 717 after it had met all its outstanding orders. Boeing officials cited slow sales for the aircraft's demise.

Increased competition from regional jets manufactured by Embraer and Bombardier took a heavy toll on sales in the last several years before the announcement was made. The beginning of the end came in December 2003 when Boeing lost a US $2.7 billion contract from Air Canada, who chose the Embraer ERJ and Canadair CRJ over the 717.

The last 717 is expected to roll off the assembly line in May, 2006 at Boeing's production facility in Long Beach, California.

Specifications

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