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Wed, Jun 12, 2002

Boeing's 717 to Hit 100th Delivery

Only Airliner Manufactured in All of California

Boeing is about to deliver its 100th 717, "the plane too good to die," next Tuesday. Boeing's smallest airliner, originally conceived as the McDonnell-Douglas MD-95, has turned out to be an ideal vehicle for short-run, fast-turnaround, efficient service. Its in-flight record so far has shown it to be better in nearly every way, than its preproduction claims. It's more efficient. It turns around faster. It even has a better in-service record (although that's partly a natural reflection of the low age of the fleet).

Airlines that have it, want more.

The machine's largest-ever single order, from TWA, was lost in last year's merger, and it might have killed a lesser machine. In fact, after September 11, Boeing nearly killed it. It has been the subject of innovation in manufacturing, as well -- the Long Beach (CA) facility where the 717 is built was the site of the first postwar (WWII) moving assembly line, for an aircraft this size. (Since then, the Renton, WA, plant has started conversion; soon the Everett plant will see parts of the same century-old innovation -- with modern twists.)
The littlest Boeing still faces an uncertain future. Short-run flights have suffered at the hands of airport security (many passengers now elect to drive 300~500 miles, since the time saved by flying has largely been wasted in the security hassles). Airlines are still losing money (Ryanair and Southwest, and a few others, notwithstanding).

Sure, there's peripheral competition...

The Airbus A318, with its "common cockpit," may make inroads, especially if turnaround and fuel efficiency don't increase their shares of the decision pie. [The A318, still undergoing certification testing, is arguably the most-fuel-efficient Airbus ever built; but its CPM is reportedly still higher than the 717's --ed.] John Thom, Boeing's Long Beach spokesman, told us, "It's a heavier plane, with really a different mission." As for the cockpit commonality, the unions don't particularly like it; but the airline management hasn't really embraced it too deeply, either, according to Thom: "Our guys believe that the commonality in the cockpit is a lot less-important than Airbus would like people to believe." [One Airbus study of various decision-making factors for airliner-buyers put commonality at the very bottom of the list, we're told --ed.]

Efficiency rocks.

Efficiency, though, is a big one, and the 717's small frontal area and great engine/airframe combination has delivered fuel efficiency in spades. Mr. Thom said, "We're getting reports from one of the airlines that the fuel consumption is 23%-27% better than the DC-9s they're replacing." The 717 was originally conceived to do just that: replace DC-9s and early 737s. Transcontinental, or intercontinental range was never a design goal. "Our plane  -- we wanted to replace DC-9s, 737 early versions -- we can't go coast to coast in this country, but we don't need to." John continued, explaining the rationale: "80% of US flights are 300-500 miles; and only about 2% of 100-seater flights go over about 1500 miles (the 717's effective limit)..."

Manufacturing innovations have spin-off benefits.

Along with the greater efficiency, and the advantages the quicker-turnaround design affords, the manufacturing itself has added benefits, to Boeing. Thom said, "The moving line is not the end in itself; it's the lean manufacturing principles we've adopted here in Long Beach. What the moving line does, is install discipline into the whole manufacturing process -- tools, materials, all of that. [The moving line itself] is not the be-all -- it's the advantages it provides. All the people who need to be here, they're within 50-100 feet of the airplane. All the paperwork, all the parts, the tools -- they're right there in the building. We had the opportunity to spend a little money, and a little bit of time, to rearrange manufacturing -- and what a difference it has made."

There's a future for the 'little' Boeing.

There are, as we go to press, 162 firm orders for the 717, which makes it #3 at Boeing, behind the latest 737s and the 777.
There are other factors that bode well for the 717. September 11 hastened the retirement of a lot of old 'liners, and the public is slowly coming back to the airports. Small, efficient airlines [this one's for Air Tran --ed.] are making progress, reopening many point-to-point routes, some of which have been unexplored for years. There's hope for this machine, and the 100th delivery is a milestone on the road to long-term viability.

FMI: www.boeing.com

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