By Ian McMurtry
Boeing 717 Sunsetting Means the End for The DC-9 Family
On February 25, 1965, the Douglas DC-9 took to the skies, creating a new narrowbody aircraft for the commercial aviation industry to take notice to. Much like the airlines that have utilized the jet, the aircraft itself has gone through various transformations becoming the McDonnell-Douglas MD-80 and MD-90 and eventually the Boeing 717. Now, as airlines react to the ever-changing COVID-19 marketplace a year is becoming more and more associated with the rear-engine aircraft design: 2025.
The Boeing 717 is the final iteration of the Douglas DC-9’s rear-engine concept, rolling off Boeing’s Long Beach assembly line in 1998. The design would not achieve the success of other previous McDonnell-Douglas designs had achieved, only racking up 156 orders before being phased out of production in 2006 and would bring an end to the aircraft family that had accumulated 2,439 deliveries in the timeframe. And while the DC-9, MD-80 and MD-90 have all disappeared in commercial operations in the recent decade, the 717 is still due to continuing for at least a few more years.
The aircraft is associated with many airlines during its operational life including some fallen flags. Carriers like Trans World Airlines, Mexicana, AirTran Airways, Spanair and Midwest Airlines all operated the aircraft type to varying degrees of success. For some it was a backbone to their business model, others an extra that filled a specific need. Despite the fallen airlines, the demand was always still there, with 144 of the 156 aircraft still seeing some ownership by a currently active airline today.
And in more recent years, the Boeing 717 made a resurgence in popularity. Business Insider’s Benjamin Zhang highlighted that the jet had received a second wind of support over a decade after the type was removed from production as airlines figured out the potential of the just over 100-seat aircraft type.
But now three years later the tone has changed, the aircraft has gone from ‘potential market filler’ to ‘old aircraft due for replacement’ as airlines restructure fleets in the age of coronavirus and begin to plan for a future with slimmed-down operations. Furthermore, new aircraft types such as the Airbus A220 have finally started to gain traction in the market as the older aircraft types prove their age to be their downfall.
Of the 144 active aircraft, Delta is the largest operator at 91 aircraft on the roster. Of those, roughly half were parked as a result of the fallout of coronavirus. The airline took over the previous AirTran fleet after the low-cost carrier’s absorption into Southwest Airlines. The 717 fleets has been utilized in smaller markets from Atlanta including smaller markets including Buffalo, Omaha and Daytona Beach.
But the aircraft’s days are numbered according to the airline, Delta in late September noted that the plan is to dispose of the Boeing 717 fleet by 2025, paving the way for other aircraft types to fill the void left by the rear engine model. The airline is expected to see a continuous string of Airbus A220s during that time that allows for replacement of the Long Beach built aircraft. While we don’t know the order that the aircraft will be replaced, the Boeing 717 fleet will be between 20 and 26 years old when phased out.
2025 is also the termination date for Hawaiian Airlines’ leased Boeing 717 fleet. The airline currently operates 19 aircraft with five of the aircraft on lease and while a future extension on the leased fleet is possible, that least one Hawaiian-owned Boeing 717 has been given the dismissal from the fleet. The aircraft lost was N481HA, a 19.5-year-old aircraft that was stripped of titles and transferred to Kalaeloa Airport a few months ago with no planned return.
The airline itself has noted that a change in pace will eventually be required, especially as the Hawaiian fleet continues to rack up flying cycles in the short-hop inter-island market. The airline has had high praise for the aircraft type, utilizing Douglas DC-9s and MD-80s before defaulting to the Boeing 717 in recent years. Then CEO Mark Dunkerley was quoted in Zhang’s 2017 article saying, “It’s a great little secret. For what we do here in Hawaii, there’s no better aircraft built today or even on the drawing board.”
Hawaiian has no replacement on the books, focusing instead on the arrival of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner in 2022 which could mean the airline plans for even further use for the Boeing 717 past 2025. Possibilities could range from Hawaiian picking a replacement aircraft type or defaulting to picking up some of Delta’s younger fleet upon retiring in 2025.
Finally, Volotea’s Boeing 717s have already been due for replacement even prior to the pandemic. The airline’s 19-aircraft strong operations have since dwindled to 12 as the low-cost Spanish brand has found the Airbus A320 family of aircraft to be the key to its future. Volotea’s Boeing aircraft were originally all parked when the outbreak began but has since returned to service with the replacement date not changing. Upon retiring the 125-seat aircraft, it will mean the Boeing 717 will disappear from European skies, ending over two decades of service with brands like Blue1 and Spanair.
For the remaining 20 aircraft the future seems to be pretty consistent as Qantas is has announced no plans to retire the aircraft type. The airline responded to the COVID-19 outbreak by bringing the QantasLink branded fleet back into subsidiary National Jet Systems after 15 years with Cobham Aviation Services. Under National Jet Systems, the airline is still utilizing 16 of the 20 in its reduced coronavirus form in 110 to 125 seat configurations for limited operations across the domestic market.
As the future remains fluid and airlines continue to evolve the fleet assignment plan for the future, it is clear that older models will slowly begin to fade similar to the disappearance of the Boeing 727 and 737 Classic after the downturn of September 11. However, after over 50 years of service, one can only hope that the final iteration of the Douglas DC-9 can earn itself a proper sunsetting opportunity as 2025 continues to inch closer.