AirTran Airways is considering accelerating the replacement of its McDonnell Douglas DC-9-30s with Boeing 717s. Meanwhile, the airline is lobbying for 100 or more slots at Washington National Airport as the US Government considers the pending mega-mergers involving American Airlines/TWA and United/US Airways.

Orlando, Florida-based AirTran, which has achieved eight consecutive profitable quarters and ended last year with net earnings of $47 million, plans to grow at about 20% per year for the next three years.

The airline has received 16 of its 50 717s on firm order which operate alongside 33 DC-9-30s and four Boeing 737-200s. Chairman Joe Leonard says he is in talks with Boeing about acquiring additional 717s to allow him to accelerate the DC-9 retirements.

AirTran had slowed the retirement of its remaining DC-9s because of strong traffic and continues with a May agreement with Boeing to stretch out deliveries of the remaining 717-200s on firm order. The DC-9 phase-out should resume by the end of this year, with up to five aircraft retiring from service each year. The low-fare carrier aims to move to an all-717 operation by 2005.

The current 717 delivery schedule calls for 12 to be received this year, 12 next year and the last 10 by the end of 2003. Leonard may exercise some of AirTran's 50 options early to pick up additional aircraft late this year or early next year.

Delivery positions could become available should American decide against taking over TWA's 717 orderbook. "There's been no decision, but we're talking to Boeing about locking those in," says Leonard.

For now, AirTran will stick with the 106-passenger 717-200, but "at some point we will want an aircraft with a little better range...and we've asked them to consider stretching the 717 so we could get more seats," he says.

Lobbying for slots at Washington National, Leonard says the US Departments of Justice and Transportation should "look very closely at requiring the divestiture of landing and take-off slots, gates and other public facilities to successful low-fare airlines" as a pre-requisite for approving the mergers of US majors.

Source: Flight International