An AirTran Boeing 717 lands in Atlanta
On December 28, 2014, AirTran flight 1 departed Atlanta for Tampa, retracing the airline’s first flight and bringing an end to its remarkable history. I had the honor of being on that last flight and I am excited to share my story. But before I discuss the end of “the big little a” I’d like to first revisit the airline’s history. Because only through knowledge of the airline’s legacy can we truly understand the significance of AirTran’s retirement and integration into Southwest Airlines. So sit back, relax, and enjoy.
ValuJet: Fun and friendly… And perhaps a bit dangerous.
AirTran traces its roots back to ValuJet, an Atlanta-based upstart with dreams of chipping away at Delta’s dominance right in its own backyard. Operations commenced with just a single DC-9, and its first flight was from Atlanta to Tampa on October 26, 1993. In just over a year the airline was solidly profitable and its route map had grown to 17 cities. But fast growth and aggressive cost-cutting practices quickly caught up to the Critter (ValuJet’s FAA call sign.) In the first few years of operation, the small airline had a markedly-high percentage of emergency landings, compared to its peers. In addition, an FAA study indicated that ValuJet dominated the accident data for low-cost carriers.
On May 11, 1996, ValuJet flight 592 went down en-route from Miami to Atlanta; all 110 on board were lost. This tragic, high-profile accident would focus attention on the airline, its maintenance practices, and ultimately lead to its grounding. After a month of investigations by the FAA, which reveled “serious deficiencies in its operation” ValuJet would voluntarily halt operations. But this wasn’t the end for the fledgling airline that had lost its way. Instead, it was just the beginning.
Say hello a freshly-painted Delta Boeing 717! Photos: Delta Air Lines
Two months ago a number of folks broke news that the much-anticipated Delta Air Lines Boeing 717-200 had finally started showing up in reservation systems. For aviation enthusiasts, it’s an exciting time when an airline brings on a new aircraft type, especially one like the 717. The 717 holds a special place in many hearts for a number of reasons, chiefly because it’s an ultra-modern descendant of the Douglas DC-9s and MD-80s which have a cult following with pilots and AvGeeks alike.
In 2011, Southwest Airlines acquired AirTran, a 717 launch partner who also happened to fly the largest fleet of 717s in the world. Aviation enthusiasts questioned whether Southwest would go against their all-Boeing 737 business model that had served them so well over the decades. Much to the surprise of many aviation industry analysts and insiders, Southwest announced they would indeed incorporate the 717 into their fleet. However, those plans never came to fruition. In 2012, Southwest and Delta announced a sweetheart deal which would allow Delta to take possession of the former AirTran birds, allowing them to retire a number of older DC/MD variants and giving Southwest the ability to maintain fleet uniformity.
After digging around on Delta.com, I confirmed the first scheduled 717 flight was supposed to be 2343 on 9/19 from ATL to EWR. I had already booked a mini-vacation to the NYC area for that weekend, so the timing simply could not have been better. I almost canceled my outbound leg and booked this flight instead…almost. Understanding that new equipment is often subject to last minute changes, I decided a call to Delta was in order.
COPA Boeing 737 in the Renton Factory. Image by Chris Sloan.
This story was written by Chris Sloan and originally was published on Airchive.com. This is the next of a multi-part series talking about the Boeing 737 factory in Renton. Read the first part: A Historical Look at Boeing’s 737 Factory in Renton and second part: Inside Boeing’s 737 Renton Factory and the Successful Next Gen.
The Boeing 737 Goes Into “MAX” Overdrive
The Boeing 737 NextGen order book continued to bulge, growing virtually unabated even through the deep worldwide economic slowdown / crisis of 2008-12. Ironically, this era of financial strife and sharply escalating fuel costs, as well as the growth of emerging markets, helped 737 and A320 sales go from strength to strength. Boeing however didn’t stand on it its laurels or did it?
Boeing claims with the introduction of its latest performance improvement package “PIP”, today’s NGs are 6-7 more efficient then when they were first introduced in the late 1990s. Boeing’s Tinseth points out that “The (737) program has taken off with record sales. It’s simple. We make it better every time. We were first in its class with ETOPS 180, glass cockpits, Sky Interiors, and high bypass engines. We lower the operating costs through such new technologies as blended winglets, heads up display, carbon brakes, and more fuel-efficient engines. We enhance customer appeal with the new Sky Interior. This is an airplane that appeals to the heart of the market: emerging and developing economies and it is very successful with the LCC business model”. These new LCC airlines in emerging markets include Lion Air, Air Asia, and Gol! An unintended benefit of the weak economy, particularly in the U.S., is the poor financial results led to an elderly, fuel-in-efficient, maintenance intensive fleet which created an advantage and some say a bubble for airframe manufacturers, particularly in this sweet smart of the market. “The significant driver in the US is the demand to replace older and less efficient aircraft”, said Tinseth.
On December 2, 1996: The first 737NG, a 737-700, rolls out of the Renton factory to all splashy event. Image courtesy: Boeing
This story was written by Chris Sloan and originally was published on Airchive.com. This is the next of a multi-part series talking about the Boeing 737 factory in Renton. Read the first part: A Historical Look at Boeing’s 737 Factory in Renton.
Success Breeds Competition: The Airbus A320 ups the ante and Boeing is forced to answer
In 1988, the first serious competitor to the 737 monopoly, the Airbus A320 entered service. With even more advanced systems like fly-by-wire flight controls, new higher powered and fuel efficient engines, a wider cabin, the first major use of composite materials in a narrow body airliner, and somewhat larger capacity on a direct model comparison basis, the A320 family quickly became a force to be reckoned with. In addition, Airbus offered aggressive pricing and quicker delivery windows. Having only recently launched the 2nd generation 737s, Boeing didn’t respond to the European framer’s challenge for another 5 years.
In 1993, Boeing finally answered with the Boeing 737 Next Generation. First flying in 1997, it first entered service in 1998 as a 737-700 (comparable in size to the 737-300) for launch customer Southwest. While retaining commonality with the 2nd generation 737s, the NextGens included a redesigned wing, and eventually winglets, that increased total fuel capacity by 30% and range to over 3,000 miles. Quieter, more powerful and more fuel-efficient engines in the form of CFM56-7Bs came online as well.