Sunday, May 14, 2006

End of Two Eras...

A Boeing employee photographs the last 717 produced as it is towed from
the manufacturing plant's hanger in Long Beach, CA on April 20, 2006.

This is somewhat old news, but interesting nevertheless...

Boeing ended production of the 717-200 twinjet at the end of April when it rolled out its 156th airplane. The aircraft, developed in the late 1990s and first delivered in 1999 to its launch customer Airtran, was an updated design based on the highly successful DC-9 and successor MD-80 series of aircraft, which dominated the 100-seat market in the United States and had been used by virtually every major U.S. air carrier at one time or another since the mid 1960s (the MD-80s came in the 1980s as the DC-9 ended production early in that decade). Unfortunately, Boeing's 717 proved unpopular in today's increasingly competitive commercial aircraft market, as the similar capacity Boeing 737 and smaller Embraer and Airbus jets proved more economically attractive for today's airlines. Despite its lower operating costs, impressive fuel economy, and quick turnaround capabilites at the gate, sales of the plane lagged as only a few airlines, including Airtran, Midwest, and now-defunct TWA agreed to support the 717 program.

Despite the ultimate failure of the 717, the plane has proven popular with travelers and pilots. Customers have enjoyed the 2 seat - aisle - 3 seat layout of the coach cabin, which has been used in DC-9s (still kicking around for Northwest Airlines after 30 years of use) and MD-80s (including American's MD-82s/-83s and Delta's MD-88s) and eliminates half of the "dreaded middle seats" that passengers hate (including me). Pilots have commented on the plane's remarkable handling and have found the plane rather easy to fly, as the flight deck was substantially simplified (replacing multiple system gauges with an all-electronic computerized flight console) to reduce visual overload. However, the cockpit has no commonality with Boeing's other plane designs, a feature that ultimately ran the 717 program into the ground (in contrast, Boeing's multiple "next generation" 737 models and Airbus's A318, A319, A320, and A321 feature common flight decks to allow airlines to rate pilots for operation of all current production 737s or all Airbus A320 family aircraft). So, despite the lower operating costs of the 717, Airlines chose to sacrifice a little money in favor of operating more versatile aircraft.

The delivery of the last 717 also marked the end of commercial aircraft production in Southern California. Boeing's Long Beach aircraft facility, opened by Douglas Commercial in 1941, has produced over 15,000 airplanes, including Douglas DC8s, DC9s and DC10s, McDonnell Douglas (after the merger in the late 60s) MD-80s, MD-90s, and MD-11s, and, lastly, Boeing 717s after Boeing absorbed McDonnell Douglas in 1997. While the plant continues to manufacture military C-17 cargo planes, the future of the plant is in jeopardy as there are no remaining orders with the U.S. military for the C-17. Aircraft production would then end forever in Southern Caifornia (also home of the Lockheed corporation, which produced many commercial planes, including the massive L-1011 Tristar jet in the 1970s and 80s), once the epicenter of commercial aviation production in the United States.

Although it's sad to see Boeing close its doors at Long Beach, it's nice knowing that the planes produced there will still be flying for future decades. I'm a regular Airtran flyer, since the carrier operates nonstop service between Boston (where I live) and Newport News/Williamsburg in Virginia, where I grew up and where my parents still live. I've been very pleased with my flying experiences on the's one of the quietest planes I have ever ridden (the engines are rear-mounted, which keeps jet noise behind the passengers...what a concept!), the EasyFit overhead bins, which were introduced on the 717, feature among the largest per-passenger storage space among any airliner (except maybe for the 747), and the 2-aisle-3 layout assists in quick boarding and deboarding of the aircraft, allowing for faster airport turnarounds and decreasing passenger headaches...after all, the one thing on a passenger's mind is getting from point A to point B, not sitting in terminals waiting for 130 people to struggle off an aircraft. Oh...and one has to love the absense of the "middle seats" on the entire left side of the aircraft.

As for the employees at Boeing Long Beach, many have been transferred to C-17 production. The end of commercial aircraft manufacturing at Long Beach proved to be an emotional event, however, as all the employees who took part in making the aircraft signed the inside of the final 717's fuselage and slowly followed the aircraft, bedecked with commemorative banners, as it was pulled out of the hanger. Never again will a brand new plane take its ceremonious trip across Lakewood Blvd, located between the manufacturing plant and the flight test field, at the break of dawn.
As for the fate of the manufacturing building, which proudly displays a reminder of the plant's 60-year legacy with its classic neon "Fly DC Jets" sign, it was still uncertain as of the end of April.


Blogger Ben said...

Fantastic post. I hadn't realized that the Long Beach site was shutting down. I'm totally in favor of rows without middle seats.

4:50 PM  
Anonymous Patrick R said...

Don't forget Midwest's all 2-aisle-2 use of this plane. I flew one of these Kansas City-DCA in comfort. A future post well cover this experience.

11:58 PM  
Blogger Evan said...

I had no idea Midwest uses that configuration for the 717. Must be quite spacious.

8:52 AM  

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