When it comes to Boeing’s narrowbody aircraft today, one thinks of the popular 737 family and its next-generation MAX series. However, Boeing’s historical single-aisle portfolio has featured several other successful aircraft families, including the 757. While popular, this aircraft was in production for far shorter than the 737 family. So, what explains its fall?
Why did Boeing build the 757?
Simple Flying recently explored the question as to why Boeing built the 757. The aircraft came to fruition after Boeing’s three-engine 727 series had become the best-selling airliner of the 1960s. The need for the 757 arose after airlines began demanding a larger version of the popular trijet. After all, a typical one-class configuration onboard the 727 only had 155 seats.
Boeing initially marketed a 160-seat 757-100 alongside the 180-seat 757-200, although the former of these never made it to production. As well as the larger capacity, the 757 also represented an upgrade from the 727 in terms of its technology. This was because Boeing developed it at around the same time as its twin-aisle 767 series. As such, it was able to borrow certain features from the larger aircraft, such as a two-person cockpit.
A two-variant passenger family
The Boeing 757-200 entered service on January 1st, 1983, with Eastern Air Lines. The aircraft became a popular middle-market workhorse worldwide, operating routes where demand was high, but not enough to fill the larger 767. The 757 also offered operators a greater range than the 727 that preceded it.
This gave the aircraft greater flexibility when it came to the routes that it operated. This became particularly important after the advent of ETOPS, which allowed twinjets to fly transatlantic routes. ETOPS allowed airlines to operate the 757 on ‘long thin’ routes over the Atlantic to secondary destinations, conveniently eliminating the need to change at a hub.
In March 1999, a second variant of the 757 entered service. This model was a stretched-fuselage version of the aircraft, known as the 757-300. It measured 54.4 meters long, compared to 47.3 meters on the standard 757-200. This saw it carry 243 passengers across two classes, which represented a significant increase compared to the 757-200’s 200 seats.
However, the 757-300 was limited to a rather niche market. After all, airlines wanting a larger aircraft could simply order the twin-aisle 767 without having to compromise on range, as was the case with the 757-300. As such, Boeing produced 55 examples of this variant, which was generally favored by airlines operating high-demand routes to smaller airports.
At its peak, Boeing was producing more than 100 examples of the versatile 757 a year. According to Boeing 757 by Philip Birtles, this boom occurred in the early 1990s. However, a decade later, Boeing found that sales of the 757 were declining.
The early 2000s represented an unstable time for the airline industry. It suffered a significant downturn following the 9/11 attacks in 2001, which meant that airlines were reluctant to take the financial risk of operating the 757. After all, if they could not fill the aircraft, they were better off deploying smaller planes such as the Airbus A320 or Boeing 737.
Amid declining customer interest, and despite a renewed sales campaign, the final nail in the coffin for the 757 came in 2003. At this time, Continental Airlines swapped its 757-300 orders for the smaller 737-800. This caused Boeing to announce the end of 757 production.
Boeing completed the final example in Renton, Washington, in October 2004. Delivery to its customer, Shanghai Airlines, took place over a year later, in November 2005. All in all, Boeing produced more than 1,000 757s between 1981 and 2004.
Of these, the vast majority (913 aircraft) were the standard -200 version. Boeing also produced 80 examples of the -200’s cargo-carrying variant. As previously established, the stretched 757-300 generated comparatively low sales, with just 55 examples being produced. Finally, Boeing also made a single -200M ‘Combi’ aircraft for Royal Nepal Airlines.
Increasingly rare today
After the 757’s production ended, fuel cost rose sharply on certain flights involving the type. This was most evident on mid-range US domestic corridors, where average it tripled from 2004 to 2008. This fuelled the drive towards smaller aircraft from the 737 and Airbus A320 families, which are the second and third-most produced commercial aircraft of all time.
Slowly but surely, the number of active 757s has fallen over the years, rendering the type increasingly rare. Some of the type’s largest operators have already retired the type, with British Airways doing so as early as 2010. Meanwhile, American Airlines announced its plans to phase out its remaining 757s in March 2020. However, the sudden onset of the coronavirus crisis resulted in these aircraft all being placed into storage by the end of that month.
Of course, the 757 is by no means extinct. For example, Planespotters.net reports that Delta Air Lines still has 127 examples across the 757’s two variants. An impressive 104 of these are currently in service despite the present downturn in demand. However, these aircraft are among Delta’s oldest, with an average age of 23.7 years old. As such, in years to come, 757 retirements may come thicker and faster than before, completing its fall from grace.
The potential for a rebirth?
It is a shame that the days are numbered for such an iconic aircraft as the Boeing 757. However, moving forward, Boeing may find that a rebirth for the aircraft could be on the cards for its future portfolio. After all, what was the 757, if not the predecessor to the current trend towards using single-aisle twinjets on long thin routes?
This trend is perhaps best exemplified by Airbus’s upcoming A321XLR. The aircraft is an extended-range version of its long-range A321LR, which itself flies further than the original A321neo. It is being touted as a potentially game-changing aircraft, as it will tap in to the trend towards narrowbodies on longer flights. This has become all the more prevalent in the wake of the current drop in passenger demand caused by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Airbus and Boeing have historically reacted to each other’s successes by producing competitors of their own. So how will Boeing challenge the A321XLR in the future? Using the 757 as a basis for producing such an aircraft seems a strong bet for several reasons.
For example, a rebirth would save the need for developing and certifying a new aircraft instead, which would be a time-consuming and expensive activity. Of course, that isn’t to say it would be a walk in the park. After all, the US manufacturer’s 777X program has suffered several delays during its development and production phases thus far. Nonetheless, it will be interesting to see if Boeing takes this approach. Perhaps time isn’t up for the 757 after all.
What are your memories of flying on the Boeing 757? Would you like to see Boeing produce a similar aircraft in the future to compete with the likes of the Airbus A321XLR? Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments.