Three Chinese airlines have asked Boeing to propose deals covering "up to 200" Boeing 717-200s. The request was made just hours before the 100-seat regional jet successfully completed a 4h 7min maiden flight from Long Beach, California, on 2 September.

Boeing declines to identify the three carriers. The airlines have requested offers "for at least 100 and maybe 200", according to 717 marketing director Rolf Sellge.

The US company has recently mounted a sales drive in China, including briefings for airlines such as China Northwest, Wuhan Airlines and Yunnan Airlines.

The interest stems "entirely" from the recent collapse of the rival 100-seat Airbus AE31X project with China, says Sellge, who adds that the Chinese airlines "-couldn't touch the 717 before". The aircraft has only 55 firm orders since its launch in October 1995. The increased level of interest, however, is also related to the recent cancellation of the MD-90T TrunkLiner and follows confirmation from former Boeing Commercial Airplane Group president Ron Woodard that the 717could fill the vacuum left by the MD-90T's abandonment.

Observers express surprise at the Boeing claim, pointing out that the Chinese airline industry is in poor shape. Although Boeing says it is too early to comment on potential collaboration deals, possibly involving large-scale subassembly and even final assembly work, analysts say this could be the driving force behind the Chinese interest and the only rational explanation of the numbers being discussed.

Other sales prospects are also on the horizon. Leasing company Bavaria Flug, which has firm orders for five aircraft, is negotiating to buy two of the four aircraft to be used in the flight test programme, which is due to finish in June 1999. These aircraft will be significantly cheaper than the $30.4 million list price. "Everybody is still looking for a bargain, but people are starting to realise that this is not a $20 million aircraft," says Sellge. Potential candidates include Air Canada and Northwest Airlines.

Source: Flight International