These days, Boeing is often in the news for all the wrong reasons. But sometimes, they produce a plane that ticks a lot of boxes. The Boeing 717 is an example. Built between 1998 and 2006, Boeing only made 156 of these smaller jets. Fifteen years later, airlines busy looking for smaller planes to rightsize their fleets eye the Boeing 717 with renewed appreciation.
The 717 is not Boeing’s baby
Boeing did not develop the 717. Rather, it was a McDonnell Douglas product, the MD-95, a plane that had its genesis in the DC-9. Boeing subsumed McDonnell Douglas in 1997, while development of the MD-95 was underway but before deliveries had taken place. The MD-95 was renamed the 717 and became part of the Boeing stable.
While the Boeing 717 is a nifty little jet, sales of the plane never soared. Many attribute that to its McDonnell Douglas genes, arguing Boeing never fully embraced the plane. Now, years down the track, most people, including those at Boeing, appreciate what a good plane the 717 is.
The first Boeing 717s were delivered to now-defunct AirTran Airways. The Orlando-based low-cost carrier was the biggest buyer of the 717, taking 88 of them. AirTran Airways was swallowed up by Southwest Airlines in 2011.
Southwest kept the Boeing 737s and leased out the 717s to Delta Air Lines. That powerhouse US airline still flies 50 Boeing 717s and is now the world’s biggest operator of the type. Delta’s CEO Ed Bastian is a fan of the plane’s durability and reliability.
Airline CEOs are fans of the Boeing 717
In addition to Delta, QantasLink and Hawaiian Airlines still operate the Boeing 717. The CEOs of both airlines praise the small jet.
“It’s a great little secret. For what we do here in Hawaii, there’s no better aircraft built today or even on the drawing board,” (now former) Hawaiian Airlines CEO Mark Dunkerley told Business Insider in 2017.
“They’re brilliant aircraft. Anyone who has them wants more of them,” agreed Qantas CEO Alan Joyce.
“These guys keep begging me to give them more 717s,” a senior sales executive at Boeing told Business Insider. “But that era over, and it’s not going to happen.”
As of April 2021, 89 Boeing 717 aircraft were still flying with Delta, QantasLink, and Hawaiian. Over the years, 15 airlines operated the aircraft type. As often happens in the airline industry, many airlines inherit planes when they take over other carriers.
Three airlines still fly Boeing’s 717
Qantas acquired its Boeing 717s when it took over Impulse Airlines. Qantas first dispatched the planes to low-cost subsidiary Jetstar before deciding the plane would work better flying for QantasLink. Due to their age, Qantas is looking to replace its 20 strong Boeing 717 fleet. But with no order for new planes placed yet, the Boeing 717 days flying around Australia are not yet over.
Halfway across the Pacific, Hawaiian Airlines will also keep flying its 19 Boeing 717s for a few more years yet.
“The 717s, our interisland aircraft, they’re absolutely fantastic planes. No plane is better suited to operating in this environment – very high frequency, short stage length, but with a lot of passengers. The 717 is absolutely the perfect airplane for that,” Hawaiian’s Avi Mannis told Simple Flying’s Sumit Singh late last year.
The Hawaiian Airlines executive suggested the 717s would stay with Hawaiian Airlines until at least the middle of the decade, but fleet replacement was inevitable sometime this decade.
In many ways, the Boeing 717 was ahead of its time. It was built to fly short to medium-haul routes. Its relatively small size (100-130 passengers depending on cabin configuration) meant it could target smaller airports with shorter runways. In a lot of ways, it is the ideal aircraft for the modern flying era – smaller capacity, nimble, robust, and reliable.
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