Southwest sticks to message that 717 is not key to long-term strategy

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Southwest's cooling to the Boeing 717 is continuing as the carrier's management stresses the aircraft's presence is not a staple of its long-term fleet plan.

Roughly a year ago when Southwest declared its intention to acquire AirTran, the Dallas-based carrier was far more bullish on the 88 717s operated by AirTran. At that time Southwest CEO Gary Kelly remarked that the carrier's pilots had a favourable view of the aircraft, and the smaller 117-seat 717 would allow Southwest to tap smaller markets not viable for the airline's larger gauge 737s.

But since Southwest closed on the AirTran purchase in May the attractiveness of the 717 has waned. Recently Kelly stated rising fuel costs have made some of the markets AirTran operates with the 717 unviable, and stressed he does not foresee the aircraft having a permanent strategic role in the carrier's fleet.

Southwest CFO Laura Wright during a 13 September presentation at the Deutsche Bank Aviation and Transportation Conference echoed Kelly's sentiments, stating: "If AirTran had all 737s, would have that been a superior answer? Absolutely, we like the fleet commonality of one airplane type."

Wright did comment that 88 717s is a sub-fleet size that allows Southwest to "schedule it efficiently and productively. With our short haul network we are going to find places for those aircraft".

She stated that while Southwest does anticipate operating the smaller narrowbodies for many years to come, "from a long term strategic standpoint we don't think the 717 is going to be a big part of our network".