After decades as one of the world's leading aircraft manufacturers, the aging Douglas Aircraft facility in Long Beach could see its fate decided by a short-hop, 106-seat jet that has yet to make a single flight.

Within less than two years, Boeing Co.'s 717 jetliner, test models of which are still being assembled, may be the last commercial aircraft being produced at the World War II-era facility.

Douglas' MD-80 and MD-90 jets both of which compete with Boeing's 737s will be phased out by 2000. The fate of the other commercial jet made there, the MD-11, rests on whether there is sufficient demand for the wide-body jet.

In January, Boeing renamed McDonnell Douglas' MD-95 the 717 and at Boeing's annual shareholders meeting, President and Chief Operating Officer Harry C. Stonecipher said he expected the Douglas division eventually to produce 10 copies a month.

That is twice the number of planes including MD-80s, MD-90s and MD-11s currently produced in Long Beach.

"We really think the market for that airplane is large enough that we will be building more airplanes of that type in Long Beach than we have built there in a long, long time," Stonecipher said. "We haven't seen 10 a month out there for quite a long while."

Still, it's not the greatest news for Douglas employees, whose fate has been unclear since their company was taken over by the Renton, Wash.-based aircraft giant.

Of the 11,500 workers employed by Douglas Products, only about 1,500 are part of the 717 program. Another 500 workers might be added as demand grows, according to Boeing officials, but that won't make up for layoffs likely to result from cancellation of the MD-80 and MD-90 aircraft or the possible cancellation of the MD-11.

About 3,400 employees work in the MD-80 and MD-90 programs, and an additional 3,000 employees work in the MD-11 program.

Prior to Boeing's acquisition of Douglas, 50 firm orders, as well as 50 options, had been placed for the 717 by AirTran Airlines, formerly ValuJet. Last week, Boeing announced that Bavaria International Aircraft Leasing Co. ordered five 717s, with deliveries scheduled in late 1999 and 2000.

Also last week, a conference was held in Berlin to market the 717 to 33 European airlines and leasing companies that might be interested in the short-hop plane.

"There's a lot of activity in the marketplace a lot of things going on," said Jerry T. Callaghan, director and development program manager for the 717.


For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.