Relevance of 717 to Southwest continues to diminish

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Southwest Airlines continues to see less of a role for the Boeing 717 as the markets the aircraft serves increasingly become unviable in a high fuel cost operating environment.

Through its acquisition of AirTran finalised in May, Southwest obtained 88 of the small narrowbodies.

Citing the small role 88 aircraft play in the combined AirTran-Southwest fleet of roughly 700 aircraft, Southwest CEO Gary Kelly declared to attendees today at the International Aviation Forecast Summit hosted by the Boyd Group that the 717 does not "bring any unique benefit that Southwest cannot get with the 737".

Kelly stated the 717 is roughly the same size and offers close to same economics as the 737-500s the carrier operates. However, he did highlight higher maintenance costs on the Rolls-Royce engines powering the 717s.

Rising fuel costs are also leading to some 717 markets operated by AirTran to become unsustainable, as evidenced by the carrier's decision to cut four markets that are all or partially served by 717s - Asheville, NC; Atlantic City, New Jersey; Moline, Illinois and Newport News, Virginia.

Underscoring that smaller-gauge aircraft are tough to operate in those markets as fuel costs climb, Kelly said in the long term he does not see the 717 playing a strategic role in Southwest's fleet.

He stated some of the lease expirations on the 717s begin in 2017 and continue through 2024. Southwest is in discussions with Boeing regarding the 717 leases, Kelly explained.

Noting the 717 is a "good airplane", Kelly stressed it is a type Southwest does not want to operate for the next 20 years.