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April 18, 2024
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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?

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8 thoughts on “The Orphan Airplane

  1. I’ve shopped around the blogisphere the idea that DL would take SWA’s 717s as part of DL’s 739ER buy, because I recall a DL person saying in connection with their 200 plane RFP they liked the 717, DL has been buying used MD 90s to replace older planes so used works for them, and DL has deferred that last 100 planes of the RFP. I have gotten a very small hello, and this article gives one reason why. Another may be that DL and SWA are about to engage in the new Battle of Atlanta so they may not want to cooperate with each other under any circumstances, even mutually beneficial ones.

    That said, has AirInsight gotten any info on whether the 717 is involved with the 739ER order? Such as that B would make improvements in the 717 to bring it up to date? The benefits to B in terms of keeping A and BB out of DL’s second 100 plane tranch seem overwhelming.

  2. Surely the growth in 717 engine-repair costs is largely down to Rolls-Royce rather than Boeing. R-R is by far the industry leader in terms of an OEM controlling the MRO aftermarket for its engines – so much so that R-R has trademarked the phrase ‘Total Care’. The BR715 is part of an extensive and reliable family of engines, members of which power both the Bombardier Global family and the Gulfstream 650.

  3. I would guess it might be too heavy – but there is the version going on the MRJ that could be considered. But then its such a small fleet.

  4. Is it easier to re-engine a rear engined or a wing engined plane? Former would not have all the landing gear, air foil/pylon design issues of the latter. But there may be cg issues for rear engined craft if engine weight is significantly higher than the engines it replaces. I wonder if GE or PW would be interested in bidding for the re-engining of SW’s 717s and those in the desert, perhaps 110 planes. Longest of long shots: They are very interested and mkt is there for B to start up the 717 line again.

  5. Another post asked about re-starting the 717 line. Sorry, not gonna happen. The Douglas Long Beach facility was closed years ago and the special jigs and tooling were dispersed.

    I think the best hope for the 717 is to be picked up by a major like Delta, which has a big Tech Ops facility to care for it. Also, a group called Super 98 is working on aerodynamic mods for the 717 and project 6% improvement in fuel burn. That would keep the 717s viable for another decade or so.

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