Boeing's roll-out of the first 717-200 on 10 June was accompanied by public reassurances from launch customer AirTran Airlines that it still intends to buy a fleet of up to 100 aircraft.

To date, the AirTran deal for 50 firm orders and 50 options makes up the bulk of the 717 orderbook, although German leasing company Bavaria has signed for another five. Boeing says that, with these firm orders and allowing for take-up of some 28 options, it is has now filled slots for 83 aircraft on the Long Beach production line through to 2003. That would still leave 142 available positions, the first three of which appear in the first quarter of 2000.

Boeing plans to deliver 12 aircraft in the second half of 1999, ramping up rapidly to 43 in 2000, of which 13 will be for AirTran and Bavaria. Production is due to rise to 58 aircraft in 2001, of which 16 are already allocated, with production peaking at 60 for 2002 and 2003. Of the 60 produced in each of these years, some 18 are earmarked for customers in 2002 and 24 in 2003.

AirTran president Joseph Corr, speaking at the roll-out, denied persistent industry rumours that the operator is preparing to off-load some of its positions, saying that the airline "-fully intends to take all of them", although admitting that buying a fleet of 100 717s "-in some ways may well be a bridge too far". He adds that the aim is to have switched to an entirely 717 fleet in the "next couple of years", helping the airline to -"increase profitability by 25%".

The airline must decide on whether to firm up its first batch of options in mid-1999 at around the time of its first delivery. The 717 would replace the existing fleet of 11 Boeing 737s and 37 McDonnell Douglas DC-9s, all of which have now been fitted out in business class configuration, marking the end of the carrier's original single-class no-frills philosophy.

Another three aircraft are due to join the fleet by August.

The first flight of the 717 has now been tentatively scheduled for 5 September.

Source: Flight International