The Story Of The Boeing 717: The Narrowbody Workhorse

The Boeing 717 has been flying for over two decades and has been a trick up the sleeve for several airlines across the globe. The narrowbody has helped carriers operate well on short-haul routes across their network. Here’s a look at the journey of the type since its launch.

Boeing 717
The Boeing 717 showing off at Paris–Le Bourget Airport in June 1999, ahead of the plane’s entry to service later that year. Photo: Getty Images.

An existing plan

The aircraft wasn’t actually launched by Boeing, but rather its former competitor, McDonnell Douglas. Originally going by the monicker of MD-95, the plane was in development before the Missouri-headquartered manufacturer merged with Boeing in 1997.

Interestingly, there could have been more variants of the type as the MD-95 wasn’t planned to be a standalone model. There was going to be a shorter fuselage MD-95-10, along with a larger MD-95-30. Overall, the original aircraft was going by the name of MD-95-30 in the company.

Pacific Southwest Airlines DC-9
Douglas merged with McDonnell Aircraft CO. in 1967. Photo: Getty Images

The plane was tipped to be a successor of the DC-9 jet and was created to perform well on short and medium-haul routes and serve airports with shorter runways. Even when Boeing rebranded the plane as the 717-200, the firm highlighted how it would be similar to the DC-9 in “size, range, and performance.”

ValuJet Airlines, which later merged with AirTran, placed the first order for the aircraft back in October 1995. Thus, the Long Beach facility that was opened by Douglas Aircraft Co. in 1941 handled final assemblies. This is the same legendary site that assisted with the United States’ equipment production in World War II.

AirTran Airways 717
AirTran Airways was the first airline to fly the 717 and also went on to receive one of the final units. Photo: Bill Abbott via Wikimedia Commons

In the air

The 100-seater is praised for its trustworthiness and great economic performance. Passengers on the aircraft will, however, notice fuselage-mounted engines that obscure the view of those near the back of the cabin. Moreover, the engines may also force some travelers to invest in noise-canceling headphones. Thankfully, not much sleep would be lost due to the short journeys that these planes generally undertake.

Rolls-Royce BR-715 engine-intake and trailing-edge of the wing of a Boeing 717-200 flying through clouds during the 1999 Paris-Airshow
Two Rolls-Royce BR715 engines power the Boeing 717. Photo: Getty Images

In a two-class configuration, approximately 106 passengers can fit on the 717. The plane can reach a cruise speed of 0.77 Mach (504 mi/h) and has a maximum ceiling of 37,000 ft (11,000 m). In basic gross weight, the aircraft can reach a maximum range of 1,430 NM (2,645 km), while in high gross weight, it has a maximum range of 2,060 NM (3,815 km).

The 717 has a length of 124 ft 0 in (37.8 m), a wingspan of 93 ft 4 in (28.4 m), and a height of 29 ft 8 in (9.0 m). Photo: Getty Images

The plane conducted its first commercial service with AirTran on October 12th, 1998. Boeing shares that there were key updates to the aircraft soon after its introduction.

“It entered a rigorous flight-test program in September 1998 and received joint certification a year later. It was the first commercial airplane to receive a Concurrent and Cooperative Certification from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Europe’s Joint Aviation Authorities (JAA),” Boeing shares on its website.

“The FAA and JAA jointly certified the 717’s first major upgrade to the airplane’s flight control computer and flight management system in October 2000. The launch customer, AirTran Airways of Orlando, Fla., took delivery of the first 717 in September 1999.”

Hawaiian Getty
The aircraft has an exit limit of 134 passengers. Photo: Getty Images

Industry transitions

On May 23rd, 2006, the final two 717s were delivered. The last customers were Midwest Airlines and AirTran Airways, marking the end of the production program after eight years.

Delta became the primary operator of the 717 after taking on AirTran’s former units in 2013. AirTran merged with Southwest Airlines, but the Texan carrier wasn’t interested in keeping on the type. Thus, Delta took on 88 units to replace numerous 50-seat regional aircraft and DC-9s.

The firm highlighted that passengers, particularly business customers, would benefit by having more mainline aircraft with better amenities amid the move. The carrier also highlighted improved efficiency over the aging aircraft that were replaced.

Along with Delta, other major carriers with significant 717 holdings included American Airlines and Trans World Airlines. Photo: Getty Images

At the turn of the year, there were four carriers operating the 717. However, after Spain’s Volotea retired its units, only Delta Air Lines, Hawaiian Airlines, and QantasLink still fly the plane.

Volotea 717
Volotea held 19 717s within its fleet, with the last units leaving in January 2021 – the airline used the narrowbodies to connect to several new cities for the first time. Photo: Getty Images

According to ch-aviation, Delta presently holds 67 717s in its fleet. The carrier flies them on short-haul domestic operations such as from its base of Atlanta to Charlotte and Houston.

Meanwhile, Hawaiian told Simple Flying last year how the 717 has been perfect on its interisland services. However, the airline is set to replace its units by the middle of this decade.

Qantas subsidiary QantasLink flies the type on domestic routes. The Australian outfit was pleasantly surprised after inheriting its first units in 2001, and the plane has been a hit for the company.

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End of an era

In total, 156 units were built between 1998 and 2006. However, the end of the program marked the conclusion of a far more historic era. These final deliveries meant that it was also the end of the road of a Southern Californian commercial aircraft production scene that traced its way back to Douglas Aircraft Co in the 1920s. Overall, 15,000 planes had been produced over the course of over eight decades.

The 717 no longer flies in Europe. Moreover, only a handful of airlines outside the continent still fly the model. Therefore, it’s becoming increasingly rare to see the plane at airports across the globe. Nonetheless, it’s notable when one is spotted as it helps to keep the legacy of the historic manufacturing program alive.

What are your thoughts about the Boeing 717? Have you ever flown on the plane during your travels over the years? Let us know what you think of the aircraft and its operations in the comment section.