The final evolution of the Douglas Company’s DC-9, the Boeing 717 (also known as the McDonnell Douglas MD-95) was the last development in a range of rear-engined aircraft that dated back to the early 1960’s, but by the time this aircraft eventually did take to the skies, the design was getting very much long in the tooth.
To trace the 717, you need to go way, way back to the original Douglas DC-9 of 1963, which was built as a short-ranged, twin-jet companion to the larger Douglas DC-8 airliner. The DC-9, apart from some styling cues, shared very little with the DC-8, being a completely new aircraft in terms of platform, engines and overall design. After entering commercial service in 1965, the DC-9 was built through to 1982, with 976 of these highly successful aircraft being built and used across the globe. The DC-9, however, was only the start of this rear-engined, regional jet family, as it gave rise to the McDonnell Douglas MD-80 series which began production in 1980. Originally, the MD-80 was meant to be another derivative of the DC-9, the stretched DC-9-50, but, following the Douglas Company’s merger with McDonnell Aircraft in 1967, the aircraft was re-designated an MD- product. Production of the MD-80 series lasted until 1999, with 1,191 of these formidable aircraft produced. But it doesn’t end there, as yet another derivative of the DC-9 came about in 1989 in the form of the MD-90, another stretched variant, but this time sporting a glass cockpit and much more efficient and powerful IAE V2525-D5 engines. In all, 116 of these aircraft were built before production ended in 2000.
In essence, the MD-95 project dates back to 1983, when McDonnell Douglas outlined a plan for the DC-9-90 variant. The -90 was considered as a replacement for the original DC-9-30, the smallest of the fleet, as the company had put much greater emphasis on the larger MD-80 variants. The plan called for a design of aircraft that was 25ft shorter than the MD-80, with an overall fuselage length of 122ft, seating up to 117 passengers, and being powered by JT8D-200 engines, although the newly formed CFM International and
its CFM56-3 engines were also considered. The overall range of the aircraft was intended to be approximately 1,500nmi, with an option of 2,000nmi. Specifically, the DC-9-90 was built to cater for newly formed airlines that had resulted from the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978. This act meant that anyone with some money, some planes and some gumption could theoretically form their own airline, essentially opening up the market to anyone whose abilities weren’t outweighed by their ambition. As such, many of these smaller airlines desired a regional aircraft that would be fast, efficient, have good capacity and be reliable, rather than having to make do with slow and temperamental second-hand aircraft such as old prop planes or early jets such as the Boeing 737-100.
However, just as plans were going well, an economic recession put the development on hold, and McDonnell Douglas struggled to keep the project afloat. Eventually, with little money available to restart the DC-9-90 project, the company chose to create a simple, smaller version of the MD-80 series known as the MD-87. While a very successful and reliable aircraft, the MD-87 failed to meet the demands that the -90 was being built to, due largely to it being heavier and less efficient. The MD-87 did sell though, but only because of its commonality with other MD-80 types rather than because of its own merits.
The DC-9-90 project wouldn’t resurface again until 1991, when McDonnell Douglas revealed what was now quite poorly dubbed the MD-87-105, the 105 signifying the number of seats it had. The plan called for an aircraft that would be 8ft shorter than the MD-87, but would provide companies with the efficiency and cheap running costs the original DC-9-90 project had promised. At the 1991 Paris Airshow, the aircraft was officially launched as the MD-95, with its name reflecting its intended debut for the 1995 model year. However, when the first mock-ups and prototypes came onto the scene in
early 1994, it was apparent that McDonnell Douglas had gone somewhat back to their roots. The aircraft was exactly the same size as the original DC-9-30 of 1963, being 119ft long and with a wingspan of 93ft. McDonnell Douglas continued to toy with the idea behind the MD-95, eventually settling on a design that would increase the range and capacity over the original DC-9, intended to instead become a direct replacement for early models from the 1960’s rather than to woo startup airlines. While it looked like the original DC-9, the MD-95’s party pieces were its glass-cockpit, modern avionics and, most of all, its engines. The MD-95 was fitted with two Rolls Royce BR715-A1-30 engines developing 18,500lbf each. These engines were used largely on Gulfstream business jets, and are notable for having a bigger cross-sectional dimension to that of the usually thin and sleeker MD-80 and DC-9 engines. While these engines did seem a little overbearing against the narrow-bodied fuselage of the -95, their reliability and efficiency spoke for themselves.
Originally, the MD-95 was to be launched with longtime customer Scandinavian Airlines System (SAS), for use on their internal European workings. SAS had purchased hundreds of MD-80’s and DC-9’s since the 1960’s, and had established itself as a loyal customer. In this instance, however, the company opted instead for the MD-95’s main rival, the Boeing 737-600, one of the shortest variants of the 737 range. Eventually, low-cost carrier ValuJet, which had formed in 1993, took on an order for 50 MD-95’s, intended to replace its startup fleet of ex-Delta DC-9’s. However, before these orders could be fulfilled, ValuJet suffered a series of horrendous crashes and accidents, resulting in the company’s bankruptcy in 1997, it eventually being rebranded AirTran Airways to try and discard its tattered reputation. The order, however, still stood, and eventually the company would have 88 MD-95 aircraft on its books, including the first and last ever produced.
MD-95 assembly took place at the McDonnell Douglas production facility in Long Beach, California, alongside the wide-body MD-11 and its MD-80 brothers. Originally, the plan was to bridge gaps between the USA and China, with MD-95’s being built under license in Shanghai. The deal, however, fell through between 1992 and 1993, with the company eventually settling on construction at their home factory at Long Beach.
1995 came and went, and the troubled tale of the MD-95 continued, with even its name now outdated. McDonnell Douglas were continuing to struggle with the their finances, especially following the failure of the MD-11 to become an able competitor to the likes of the Boeing 747 and the Airbus A340. While the MD-80 series continued to sell in their hundreds, the company had no money to truly develop new models to replace what was essentially a 34 year old design. Eventually, McDonnell Douglas was bought in August 1997 by longtime rivals Boeing for $13 billion, and most airline observers felt that the long anticipated MD-95 project would meet its end before its beginning. Surprisingly, Boeing continued to work on the development, rebranding the upcoming model as the
Boeing 717, a name originally intended for the short-range version of the Boeing 707, the 720. However, the Boeing 717 designation had been used before for the KC-135 Stratotanker, an air-to-air tanker version of the Boeing 707, this being dubbed the Boeing 717-100. Boeing were not oblivious to this, and thus what was formerly the MD-95 was christened the Boeing 717-200. However, Boeing’s decision to continue developing the 717 was often considered to be a hide into nothing. Boeing had just as much trouble wooing customers as McDonnell Douglas, with many taking on the company’s own Boeing 737’s, or the new kid on the block the Airbus A320 family. At the same time, many small or startup airlines that were interested often went out of business before the construction of the aircraft could be finished, the turbulent nature of the deregulated market being increasingly apparent.
Eventually, the Boeing 717 took to the skies from the Long Beach factory on September 2nd, 1998, followed by FAA type certification almost exactly a year later on September 1st, 1999. As mentioned, the ex-ValuJet orders were honoured by AirTran, who took delivery of the first aircraft in the same month. By the time the first 717’s began their operational service in October 1999, the orders stood at 50 for AirTran, and 50 for Trans World Airlines, wishing to replace their ageing fleet of DC-9’s. Boeing’s gamble on the 717, however, began to pay off over time, as it was quickly found that the 717 was not only incredibly reliable, but also efficient, fast, cheap to run and a huge hit with passengers for its quiet interior and spacious cabin. Very soon, orders came flooding in from across the globe, most notably in Australia, where the first 717’s were delivered to Impulse Airlines in 2000. Impulse was eventually bought out by Qantas in May 2001, with its aircraft being transferred to their fleet. Impressed by the performance of the 717, Qantas ordered its own fleet of these jets to replace their BAe 146’s, which were comparatively slower. Hawaiian Airlines and Midwest Airlines also took on a sizeable fleet of 717’s, while Boeing attempted to endear the aircraft to Lufthansa and, more importantly, Northwest, which operated a massive fleet of DC-9’s. Boeing’s primary objective was for the 717 and, its former rival, the 737-600 to compliment each other in
the regional jet market, the 737-600 being better suited for long distance routes, while the 717 was more efficient for the shorter hops. As such, Boeing began considerations for creating a new production line for the Boeing 717 and 737 range in 2001, with planned startup for this new construction facility being sometime in late 2002.
However, the impact of the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001, caused a slump in the aviation industry never before seen, and demand for aircraft dropped alarmingly. Many of the airlines that had operated or were ordering the Boeing 717 folded, with TWA being purchased by American Airlines at the end of that year, who chose not to take on the existing 717’s and sold them to AirTran, while TWA’s orders were discontinued. After a review at the end of 2001, Boeing chose to continue 717 production, although orders were severely lacking, with only 19 aircraft sold in 2000, 6 in 2001, but, surprisingly, 32 orders being made in 2002 despite the downturn. Other problems arose for the 717 in the form of increased competition by smaller Regional Jets such as the Embraer ERJ and Bombardier CRJ range. This became apparent when, in 2003, Air Canada, a longtime MD-80 and DC-9 customer, opted to turn down a $2.7 billion contract with Boeing for a fleet of 717’s, instead choosing a variety of ERJ and CRJ jets. This formed what would become the beginning of the end for both the 717, but also the entire DC-9 derivative family. The 717 was now the only one of these early designs left in production, the MD-80 and MD-90 series having been wrapped up in 2000, as well as the last carryover from McDonnell Douglas being produced since the MD-11 was discontinued in 2000 as well. January 2005 saw Boeing announce an end to the 717, and the final aircraft of 156 units left the Long Beach facility in April 2006, destined for a life with AirTran, who ended up with both the first and last aircraft of the 717 fleet. Immediately after the departure of this 717, the McDonnell Douglas factory at Long Beach was stripped of its production equipment, being used by Boeing as a maintenance facility for ex-Douglas aircraft by customers, bringing an end to the factory that had given us the Globemaster, the DC-3 to DC-10 and the MD-80.
As mentioned, only 156 of these aircraft were built, but, as of the time of writing in 2017, 154 of these aircraft were in active service across the globe with a small number of airlines; Delta Air Lines have 91 (acquired following the end of AirTran in 2014), Volotea
have 19, Hawaiian Airlines have 18, QantasLink have 20 and Turkmenistan Airlines have 6, the the two extraneous aircraft are one that is in storage, while the other, the prototype, was scrapped. The 717 also, by 2017, maintains a clean safety record, with no hull losses or fatalities to be accounted for. While the 717 may have suffered a bumpy start to its operational life, it appears to be set for a bright future. While the older DC-9’s and MD-80’s are gradually seen off, the 717, due to its comparatively young age, is most likely to see another 10 to 20 years of mainline service with larger carriers. It is a fantastically reliable aircraft, and an incredibly flexible one at that. It’s highly efficient and full of that same charisma the original DC-9 had when it first pioneered the breed in 1963. One hopes the Boeing 717 continues on its merry way, ferrying passengers safely from place to place without fault.