Possibly the airplane most qualified to go by this moniker is the Boeing 717. It started life as the MD95 – and with it went much of the hopes of McDonnell Douglas. It made an early and crucial win at ValuJet which became AirTran. There a few more sales here and there, but McDonnell Douglas had moved too little and too late. Once it became clear that the firm was going to disappear into Boeing, the MD95 was going to become an orphan. Boeing saw the airplane as a threat to its 737-600 and went about keeping it around halfheartedly – renaming it the 717 was a bit of an industry joke because there never officially was a 717 between 707 and 727.
Take a look at the airplane’s performance since 2000 in the following chart. Note how the pattern of use has changed since 2005. Costs have risen steadily and not because of fuel burn. The US fleet has been busy but there is a noticeable spike in usage. The problem for operators is that nobody is offering any updates or upgrades. The engines are not not seeing any PIPs, which not helping fuel burn. We understand rather than upgrade the engines, BMW and Rolls-Royce just replace parts. Nobody wants to do anything to keep this airplane current – even though it is quite capable and relatively young. It is not only an orphan, it is being turned into an ugly duckling. Despite initial language about keeping the 717 we suspect that Southwest will be looking at replacement with 737reos as soon as they can. If for no other reason than the fact that such a platform has a predictable future. The 717’s future is a beer can within the decade.
So why did operations change so sharply after 2005? The following two charts explain. The biggest operator of the airplane made a sharp change in use after 2005. Moreover, that was the peak of use by Midwest which went on to sell off their fleet as they shrank and ended up inside Republic.The following chart illustrates just how varied is use of the airplane in the US. AirTran not only gets much more hours out of their 717, they seem to push it harder than Hawaiian – where the airplane is used for short hops doing inter-island traffic. Midwest made good use of the airplane but then it went away.This next chart shows what is happening with the engines. It would seem the operators are dealing obsolescence in real-time. There is no way the 717 remains a viable airliner in commercial use when numbers start to spike like this.
The rise in numbers suggests that the 717 is not getting attention like other Boeing aircraft. Boeing is legendary for tweaking its airplanes for improvements by a few percent per year. Not so the 717. Boeing has directly tried in this market using the 737-500 and -600 and failed. This is an opportunity for Bombardier and Embraer as well as the Superjet and Mitsubishi?