Boeing ponders launch of larger model as it considers ramping up production

The marketing drive to launch the stretched Boeing 717-300X has shifted to Asia and Europe, aimed largely at airlines in the Star Alliance, some of which are studying a possible group purchase.

"The -300 seems to be the focus of most interest," says Boeing 717 vice-president and general manager Jim Phillips, who adds board authority to offer the stretch could be sought around June. Studies of the stretch of the current 106- to 117-seat 717-200 to increase capacity by 20-22 seats "will hopefully come to some sort of conclusions some time by mid-year".

The decision could also coincide with a production rate ramp-up later this year at Long Beach, says the company, but this is thought to be unlikely unless more orders are taken in the near term, as the backlog has dwindled to 36 aircraft.

Austrian Airlines, Lufthansa and Scandinavian Airlines are among the leading Star members being courted by Boeing as the core carriers in the 717-300X study. US airlines AirTran Airways and Midwest Airlines, the latter having taken delivery of its first 717-200 on 28 February, are also pushing Boeing to develop the stretch, which they view as a low-cost MD-80 replacement. Boeing stresses, however, that increased- range derivatives are not part of the -300X study, to avoid a marketing conflict with the Next Generation 737 family.

"The Star Alliance is considering buying it as a group," says Phillips, who adds that a single configuration would simplify the build process and would enable aircraft to be moved between the airlines.

Although Star officially declines to comment on its members' fleet evaluations, sources close to the alliance say that chief executive Jan Albrecht is expected to confirm plans for a joint purchase of regional aircraft this week at a manufacturers' conference in Toulouse.

Only some of the group are thought to be involved, with others such as United Airlines retaining the option to join at a later stage, he adds. The group is interested in "both the -200 and -300", says Phillips.

Meanwhile AirTran, which had been pushing Boeing to develop a longer-range 717 for transcontinental services, is wet leasing two Airbus A320s from Ryan International Airlines to support its launch into the market. The one-year wet lease to AirTran will allow the carrier to test the A320 as it evaluates the twinjet along with the 737 for its long-term needs.

Source: Flight International