Boeing 717-200

Facts about the commercial aircraft that is assembled in Long Beach.

Capacity:

100 passengers; designed for shorter regional trips

Size:

Wing span of 93.3 feet and overall length of 124 feet, the 717 is similar in size and configuration to the DC-9 Series 30

Features:

Five-across seating in economy class; illuminated handrails, large overhead stowbins

Originally Launched:

October 1995

Operating Fleet:

More than 60 717s currently in regular passenger service

Boeing Co. will lay off another 300 workers at its Long Beach-based 717 commercial jet program, according to union officials, a move that some say signals the troubled program's demise.

Richard Alonzo, vice president of the United Aerospace Workers Local 148, said Boeing officials told him the new round of layoffs would be complete by March 2002, adding to the previously announced layoffs of 1,200 to take effect by the end of this year. The program at one time employed 3,500 workers.

"It upsets me," he said. "We feel the company is not even trying to market the airplane. Maybe they're trying to phase it out. It seems that way sometimes. Unless we get a big increase in orders, then it will definitely shut down."

The 90-to-110-seat 717 has been losing orders to Airbus Industrie, BAE Systems and other narrow-body jet manufacturers. What's more, the model faces internal competition from Boeing's 100-to-120-seat 737.

Company salespeople learned that first-hand when they showcased both planes in China earlier this year, only to discover that Boeing had secured $1.6 billion in orders from four different airlines all for 737s.

Boeing officials refused to comment on additional layoffs but rebuffed claims that salespeople aren't actively trying to sell the 717.

"We hear that a lot," said Boeing spokesman John Thom. "No airplane in the Boeing family has been promoted harder than the 717. It's the best airplane in the 100-seat market. We know that the current and future airplanes in the 100-seat market are not going to be able to compete with us on an operating-cost basis."

Boeing has sent the jet on three foreign sales tours and several major air shows all at significant expense, Thom said.

Boeing officials have cited outside market forecasts calling for 3,000 new 90-to-120-seat planes over the next 20 years. But those projections were made before Sept. 11.

Orders decline

Paul Nisbet, a partner in Newport, R.I.-based JSA Research Inc., concluded in a Sept. 20 forecast on the narrow-body jet industry that Boeing needs to deliver 24 717s a year to break even a figure disputed by Boeing. Nisbet's report projected that production would drop from four planes per month to one plane per month beginning next year. "There's no way it would be profitable at that rate," he said.

Soon after the Sept. 11 attacks, Boeing announced it would lay off as many as 30,000 employees, or nearly 30 percent of its commercial aircraft workforce, by the end of next year. No details were offered as to the number of cuts in each program.

"The real question is, how fast can the (airline) industry recover?" said Tom Burke, director of Avmark Inc., an Alexandria, Va.-based aviation consulting firm. "(The post-attack travel falloff) is an area we've never been to before. We just don't know. If it lasts a long time, that (717) airplane probably can't make it. It doesn't have a strong enough customer base. And Airbus is having a good time in that (seat-class) range."

The project did get a boost last April when Midwest Express signed a deal for 20 planes and options on 30 more. It was the first major 717 contract since AirTran Airways' 1995 commitment to buy 50 planes with options for 50 more. Boeing also had orders for 50 planes and options on another 50 from TWA.

But just after the deal with Midwest was signed, Boeing took a major blow, as 20 of 50 firm orders and all 50 options under contract with TWA were nullified after American Airlines Inc. purchased the company.

While a Midwest Express official said the company expects to pick up all its options, AirTran, which picked up options on three planes before Sept. 11, refused to make a firm commitment on the remainders.

"I would hope we would take them, but I'm not going to speculate," said Tad Hutcheson, AirTran's marketing director. "It just depends on market conditions."

If production of the 717 ceases, it would put an end to the last commercial airline vestige of McDonnell Douglas Corp., which called its plane the MD-95 before the company was purchased by Boeing in 1997.

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