Boeing's decision to continue the development of the former McDonnell Douglas MD-95, in the new guise of the 717, has effectively redrawn the battle lines in its war with Airbus Industrie. This takes the civil-aviation giants to a new battleground where their tussle for market supremacy can be continued.

Whether battle is joined, however, still depends on the European consortium managing to reach agree- ment with its Chinese and Singaporean partners to launch the AE31X family. The longer the talks drag on, the more uncertain the prospect becomes.

If the two rivals decide to go head-to-head, other manufacturers who stray into the market for 80- to 120-seat regional aircraft will do so at their peril, and even those contemplating new products in the 70- to 75-seat range will need deep pockets, courage and a cohesive product strategy if they are to pit themselves against the two heavyweights residing in Seattle and Toulouse.

As Embraer boss Mauricio Botelho said in 1997, when asked about plans to launch a 70-seater if Boeing went ahead with the 80- to 120 -seat 717: "If Boeing sniffs, we catch pneumonia."

Competing with McDonnell Douglas, which had all but thrown in the towel on the civil-aviation front before it launched the MD-95, was one thing. Put a cheap and cheerful product like the 717 into the hands of an aggressive giant such as Boeing, however, and you have a combination which is powerful enough to run smaller rivals off the road.

Compare Boeing's projected production figures of ten a month for the 717 with the McDonnell Douglas figure of about half that when it launched the MD-95, and you begin to realise just how more powerful a product the aircraft is in the hands of Boeing, even allowing for the fact the market conditions have changed.

With the AE31X still years away from entering the market, the first rival in the Boeing firing line is likely to be British Aerospace's RJ family. BAe, which markets the aircraft through the Aero International (Regional) consortium, might indulge in a bit of shadow boxing with the 717, but the first time Boeing says boo in a contract fight, the UK company is likely to throw in the towel and leave the ring in search of another customer willing to pay a good cash price for its products. British Aerospace made the biggest write-off in UK corporate history on its regional business in the early part of the decade and it is not about to make the same mistake again trying to compete head-on with Boeing and its risk-sharing partners.

Of course, Boeing's record in the regional market is not without blemish. The last time it tried to enter the regional world by purchasing de Havilland Canada resulted in an inglorious dash back to Seattle, leaving Bombardier to rescue the ailing operation. Interestingly, the man who ran the Canadian operation - Ron Woodard - is now the president of Boeing's commercial-aircraft division.

The 717 family is different. With the exception of a slight overlap in some areas with the 737-600 twinjet, the 717 sits neatly at the bottom of the Boeing airliner range - not completely detached from it, as the de Havilland turboprop range was.

The attraction of the 717 is its availability and its price. Most observers would agree that the airframe, based as it is on the McDonnell Douglas DC-9, does not represent the cutting edge of civil-aviation technology - but who needs the finest technology when you are reportedly being offered a 100-seat aircraft for around $18 million and, if it goes ahead, an 80-seater for not much more than $16 million? If the pricing indications are borne out, they will be little more than you would expect to pay for a 50-seat regional jet.

Against that, Airbus will have to pitch its customary high-technology product into the market at least five years behind the 717 and, more significantly, at a competitive price.

As Boeing vice-president Thomas Schick revealed at the 717 launch conference, the revised price "will be pleasant" to prospective customers. Whether the aircraft's price is pleasant to its risk-sharing partners and rivals remains to be seen.

Source: Flight International