Randy's Journal: Archives

24 May 2006

California dreamin'

Something very significant took place yesterday, for both the Boeing Company and the commercial aviation industry. In Long Beach, California, AirTran Airways and Midwest Airlines took delivery of the very last Boeing 717s.

The 717 program produced 156 airplanes, and along the way pioneered breakthrough business and manufacturing processes.

So, needless to say, this week marks the end of a great airplane program. But it also closes the era of commercial passenger airplanes associated with the legendary Donald Douglas, dating back to the 1920s. What aviation enthusiast has not been awed by the magnitude of Douglas' influence, and his contributions to the history of flight? Today's 717s are part of that legacy, based on the blueprint of the highly successful Douglas DC-9.

Alan Mulally, Joe Leonard and Tim Hoeksema photo

At ceremonies yesterday in Long Beach, Pat McKenna, vice president and general manager of the 717 program, addressed the crowd beneath a replica of the "Fly DC Jets" sign. Other speakers included (left to right) Jim Phillips, retired vice president and general manager of the 717 program; Alan Mulally, president and CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes; Joe Leonard, chairman and CEO of AirTran Airways; and Tim Hoeksema, chairman, president and CEO of Midwest Airlines.

I know that the employees who are part of the Long Beach heritage have every reason to be extremely proud. But understandably it's also a sad occasion for Southern California, and for the employees who've worked on the Douglas and McDonnell Douglas-legacy aircraft in Long Beach.

For sure, the Douglas spirit is part of that region's DNA, just as Boeing's is to the Pacific Northwest. And with that spirit there's a pride that comes from every challenge and success. The challenges were many, including two mergers in 30 years: Douglas with the McDonnell Aircraft Company in 1967, and McDonnell Douglas with Boeing in 1997.

Tops among the successes would be the nearly 3,000 Long Beach-built jets and more than 15,000 airplanes of all types produced at the site since 1941. During World War II, Long Beach produced almost 10,000 airplanes for allied forces, including more than 4,000 C-47s - the military version of the DC-3. And what a lot of people may not know is that Douglas also produced 3,000 B-17s in a unique wartime partnership with Boeing.

Boeing employees and the final 717 photo

Last month, Boeing employees gathered for this remarkable photo in front of the last 717. This final Douglas-heritage airplane was the 15,599th airplane built in the Long Beach Factory.

That spirit of cooperation continues today as Boeing Commercial Airplanes moves forward. The Boeing Production System is an industry benchmark in large part because of the "Lean" manufacturing and employee involvement practices we pioneered on the 717 program. Thanks to Long Beach, we've also learned a lot about engaging and managing the global supply chain.

The transformation of the 737 and other programs to moving production lines also says a lot about the Long Beach influence throughout the company. And frankly, that's not going away. Walk into any Boeing facility in the Puget Sound area today, and it doesn't take long to find someone who's also worked in Long Beach.

I wasn't able to attend the events in Southern California this week, but I can certainly appreciate the sentiments of the thousands of employees and retirees on hand to send off the Boeing 717. For me in particular, I recall taking part in a memorable demo flight on a 717 over Puget Sound around the time of the 1997 merger, when the MD-95 first became the 717.

Fly DC Jets sign and MD-80s and MD-90s assembly photo

This shot from the mid-1990s shows the historic "Fly DC Jets" sign overhead as MD-80s and MD-90s are being assembled on the same production line.

The 717 is a very efficient airplane, and its 5-abreast seating is very popular with passengers. The airplane has excellent reliability, economics and performance. But unfortunately the 100-seat market never really developed as quickly as we thought it would. No doubt it was a great competitor to the airplanes it was up against such as the A318. And I think eventually there will be a keen market for 100-seat airplanes.

In the meantime, let this week's events serve as a great tribute to the Douglas legacy. The Long Beach factory with its legendary sign, "Fly DC Jets," will live on forever in the history of commercial aviation, and in its lasting impact on the Boeing of today and the future.