How The MD-95 Morphed Into The Boeing 717

Between 1998 and 2006, US manufacturer Boeing produced 156 examples of its rear-engined 717 twinjet. However, the aircraft was not originally intended to be a Boeing design. Indeed, McDonnell Douglas first proposed the aircraft under the designation MD-95. So how exactly did this interesting aircraft change from one name to the other?

The 717 began life as a concept known as the McDonnell Douglas MD-95. Photo: Getty Images.

The original idea

The 717 can trace its history all the way back to the launch of the Douglas DC-9 program in 1963. The DC-9 entered service in 1965, and a second-generation development, known as the MD-80 family, followed suit 15 years later in 1980. The MD-80 ultimately sold nearly 1,200 units. 13 years after that, in 1993, the upgraded MD-90 also took to the skies.

In 1991, McDonnell Douglas revealed a new 105-seat version of the MD-80, known as the MD-95, at the Paris Air Show. It placed the aircraft on sale three years later, in 1994, sporting similar dimensions to the original DC-9-30, but upgraded engines and flight systems.

Despite its promise, March 1995 saw Scandinavian Airlines (which had been a fan of McDonnell Douglas’s previous aircraft) order the Boeing 737-600 over the MD-95. Later that year, ValuJet placed what would be the aircraft’s only order for two years, totaling 50 aircraft and a further 50 options. However, change was just around the corner.

Volotea Getty
Spanish LCC Volotea was the last European 717 operator. Photo: Getty Images

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Merger leads to a name change

When Boeing acquired McDonnell Douglas in 1997, it inherited aspects such as the company’s MD-95 program. With the aircraft yet to reach production, and struggling for orders, many people expected that Boeing would cancel the project.

However, with renewed vigor, the manufacturing juggernaut elected to persevere with the MD-95. This involved, among other aspects, renaming it to fit in with Boeing’s existing portfolio. Usefully, there was a gap between its previous 707 and 727 models.

Hawaiian Boeing 717
Hawaiian uses the 717 on its various inter-island routes. Photo: Bryan S via Flickr

As such, the MD-95 became the 717, and it began flying passengers before the turn of the century. Interestingly, Boeing had also planned to produce short-fuselage and stretched versions of the 717. However, limited time and resources, and the risk of producing an aircraft too similar to the 737-700, caused Boeing to abandon these plans.

The 717 today

The present airline industry looks very different from when the 717 entered service with AirTran back in 1999. Nonetheless, there are still three airlines that continue to operate the aircraft. This had been four until fairly recently, but Spanish low-cost carrier Volotea retired its last examples in January 2021. This marked the end of 717 operations in Europe.

QantasLink Boeing 717
QantasLink’s fleet presently includes 20 717s. Photo: Alec Wilson via Flickr

Two of the 717’s remaining three operators are US-based carriers, namely Delta and Hawaiian Airlines. The aircraft is particularly useful for the latter of these operators, which likes to deploy the 717s on its short and sharp ‘island-hopping’ services.

The third and final present-day 717 operator is Australian regional operator QantasLink. Rather than buying its first 717s, QantasLink inherited them from the defunct Impulse Airlines in 2001. Nonetheless, they have proven a hit, and remain active to this day.

Interestingly, Ecuadorian startup Ecuatoriana Airlines appears to be planning to begin services with the 717. As such, the return of a fourth operator may be on the cards after all.

Have you ever flown on a Boeing 717? If so, was your journey with one of its three current airlines, or another former operator of the type? Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments.