Staff Reporter

In a ceremony filled with balloons, music and congratulatory speeches, Boeing Co. rolled out its new short-hop 717 jetliner at the company's Douglas Products Division plant in Long Beach last week.

The only thing missing? Customers.

Although Boeing has a firm order from AirTran Airlines to buy 50 planes (and an option for another 50), plus a firm order from Bavaria International Aircraft Leasing Co. for five planes, Boeing has yet to find a major-airline customer or major lessor for its new 717 plane.

"Boeing traditionally would never roll out an airplane with as weak an order book as they have on the 717," said Jon Kutler, president of Quarterdeck Investment Partners Inc., a Los Angeles-based aerospace investment firm.

Boeing officials insist they are working hard to push the 717, which it inherited as the MD-95 in its acquisition last year of McDonnell Douglas Corp.

"We have lots of discussions," said Ron Woodard, president of Boeing Commercial Airplane Group. "There is a lot of interest in Europe, and there is a lot of interest in North America. And those are the two primary markets."

Bruce Dennis, vice president of marketing for Boeing Commercial Airplane Group, said other Boeing planes have been rolled out with a small number of customers.

"The last plane Boeing launched was a 777, and that was launched with only one customer United Airlines," Dennis said.

But the 777 has a much higher list price between $130 million and $146 million. By comparison, the 717 lists for between $30 million and $34 million (though the resources devoted to launch the 717 are considerably less than for the 777).

Dennis acknowledged that the number of 717 orders is not as high as Boeing would like. "Would we like to have more? You bet. I'd love to sit here saying we have 40 customers," he said.

One reason Boeing has been slow in attracting customers is that the company's marketing and sales staff had to be educated on an airliner that was not part of Boeing until less than a year ago.

"We didn't know much about this thing until the merger last year," Dennis said. "All of a sudden, come Aug. 4 (when the merger was finalized), there was a gear-up time and a training time, and that takes effort. We put a lot of effort into it and I think we're at full speed now."

Dennis said Boeing marketers have met with more than 100 airlines and commercial aircraft lessors about the 717, and that serious discussions are underway with about 50 of those companies. "This thing looks real optimistic here," he said.

Whether or not Boeing finds a sufficient number of customers for its 717 could determine the future of Long Beach's Douglas division and the workers who remain there.

Boeing already has cancelled the other three commercial aircraft programs at the Long Beach plant the MD-11, MD-80 and MD-90 programs potentially taking with them thousands of Long Beach jobs. Although Boeing has moved some of its 737 work to Long Beach from its overburdened Renton, Wash. plant, the amount of additional work to be moved to Long Beach and how long it will stay there remains to be seen.

Therefore the plant's future may lie with the 717 program, which employs about 1,500 workers. As many as 500 more workers could be added to the plant if the airplane proves popular with customers.

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