The 757 entered service in 1983, and more than 1,000 were delivered over the next 20 years. It has been a great success for Boeing and popular with many airlines, in particular with its long range and versatile operation in hot, dry, and high locations. Production ended in 2004, and it is now disappearing from airline fleets, with no real replacement options.
Developing the 757 – a successor to the 727
By the 1970s, Boeing had started to see strong success with its jets. The Boeing 707 is widely credited as the first successful aircraft of the jet age (the Comet was the first, but several problems held it back). And the Boeing 727 had done very well for Boeing, opening up new options for jets on shorter routes and at smaller airports. Until the 1990s, it was the most produced jet aircraft (until the 737 took over).
Boeing, and operating airlines, wanted a successor to the popular 727. There was a desire for greater capacity, and one of the first proposals was to stretch the 727. But airlines were also interested in efficiency, with a preference for two engines instead of the three-engine 727. This would lower operating costs, and ultimately led to the new clean-sheet design of the 757.
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Inheriting from the 767
Although it was a replacement for the 727, much of its design and inspiration came from the larger 767. Development of the 767 had started earlier, so the 757 ended up ‘borrowing’ from its design. This saved time and cost and is not uncommon in aircraft development (Airbus went even further with the A330 and A340). Similarities included the two-person cockpit and much of the interior fittings.
Some aerodynamic design features were shared too. The wing shape was changed to a more aft-loaded design – larger on the 767 but using the same design. With the same cockpit and similar handling characteristics, pilots can easily move between the 757 and 767.
Launching the 757-200
Boeing originally proposed the 757 with two different-sized variants. The smaller 757-100 would offer a capacity of around 160 and the larger 757-200 around 180. With much more interest from airlines in the larger variant, Boeing dropped the 757-100.
The first two orders were confirmed for the 757-200 in March 1979, from British Airways (21 aircraft) and Eastern Air Lines (19 aircraft).
Production took place at Boeing’s Renton factory (along with the 707, 727, and 747). Larger widebodies are built at the Everett site. The first prototype aircraft was completed in January 1982 and first flew on February 19th.
Five aircraft were involved in a seven-month test program. This proceeded with surprisingly few delays and led to an increase in the range quoted. It received its FAA certification in December 1982 and UK CAA certification in January 1983. The first aircraft entered service with Eastern Airlines on January 1st, 1983.
757 freighter variants
The 757-200F cargo variant followed soon and entered service in 1987 with UPS. Overall, 80 freighters were ordered, with FedEx Express, UPS Airlines, and SF Airlines in China the main operators. There is also a 757-200 Combi freight version for combined passenger and cargo use. Nepal Airlines was the only new customer for this in 1986.
In 2001, Boeing launched a passenger to freight conversion version – with passenger facilities removed, cargo door added, and the fuselage floor strengthened. The first aircraft to be converted were retiring 757-200s from British Airways. This conversion has been popular since – according to data from ch-aviation.com, there have been 128 conversions to date.
Adding the 757-300
Boeing may have dropped one of the two proposed initial variants, but it later added another. A larger 757-300 entered service in 1999 with Europen airline Condor.
The 757-300 stretched the fuselage by just over seven meters. Capacity was increased to a maximum of 295 (from an exit maximum of 239 for the 757-200). Typical capacity though was 243, up from 200.
The 757-300, though, was not a great success, with only 55 aircraft built. The increased size led to a reduction in range, and it ended up as a fairly niche offering. The widebody 767 offered a greater capacity than the 757-200, without compromising on range. But the 757 could access smaller airports. It also came late in the development of the 757 (the 757-200 had been in service for 16 years when the -300 launched).
Top range for a narrowbody
The 757 is known for its range and its performance in hot and dry and high-altitude environments. This makes it a very capable and versatile aircraft that has suited many airlines well.
The 757-200 offers a range of 3,915 NM (7,250 kilometers). This is much higher than other narrowbodies. For comparison, the 737-800 has a range of 2,930 NM (5,765 kilometers) – and also a lower typical passenger capacity of 162 versus 200. The newer and larger 737 MAX 10 still falls short of the 757 on range.
With this range, the 757 can easily handle US coast-to-coast flights as well as offering transatlantic narrowbody routes. Icelandair has even operated it on a few one-off flights from Reykjavik (KEF) to San Francisco (SFO) – a distance of 3,653 NM (6,765 kilometers).
In more regular service, Delta Air Lines has operated the 757-200 between Atlanta and Brasilia, Brazil – a route of 3,542 NM (6,560 kilometers).
And outstanding performance
Its performance has also set it apart from other narrowbodies. Importantly, it has a higher thrust-to-weight ratio. It can operate from shorter runways, with a lower take-off speed, and has higher performance in thin air environments.
With this performance, US airlines have been able to schedule it widely, including hot, dry, or high altitude airports such as Denver and Bogota. It can also serve smaller runway airports, giving it a big advantage over widebodies such as the 767 (and even the 737 at some locations).
One interesting side-effect of its design is that it produces powerful wingtip vortices (more in some cases than 767 or 747). This has reduced somewhat with winglets, but the 757 is classified as ‘heavy’ by air traffic controllers to acknowledge the impact of this and the aircraft spacing required.
757 orders and operators
Boeing has built 1,050 757 aircraft in total – 913 of these are passenger 757-200 aircraft and only 55 757-300 aircraft.
The 757 has been especially popular with US airlines, will all of the major legacy airlines (American Airlines, United Airlines, and Delta Air Lines) operating it. American Airlines operated the largest fleet of 142 (including many acquired from TWA). It retired them in 2020 amidst pandemic-related fleet simplification.
Following American’s retirement, Delta Air Lines became (and remains) the largest 757 operator. As of June 2021, it still operates 127 aircraft. United Airlines still operates 72.
It has also been very popular in Europe. British Airways was one of the first airlines to take the 757-200 and operated a fleet of up to 54 aircraft until retirement in 2010.
Icelandair has also been a major operator, with the 757 the main aircraft in its fleet. In passenger service, it currently operates 16 757-200 and has retired 18 of them. And it still operates two 757-300s. Condor previously operated a fleet of 18 757-200s and 757-300s.
The 757 remains a popular freighter option, which is likely to outlast passenger use. FedEx Express operates 109 aircraft, UPS Airlines operates 75, DHL Air operates 23, and Chinese SF Airlines 36.
757s in special or VIP use
The 757-200 has also seen plenty of specialized uses. It has been a popular choice for government use, used for presidential transport by Mexico, Argentina, Brunei, Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, and the US.
While the US Air Force modified 747s that serve as Air Force One are more famous, the government fleet also includes 757s (with designator C-32). These serve as ‘Air Force Two’ when carrying the Vice President – but also are used by the President. The aging 757s (between 22 and 30 years old) were due to be replaced, but this has been halted.
Private VIP users have included Microsoft’s Paul Allen and Donald Trump. Trump famously used this as ‘Trump Force One‘ during his presidential campaign. This has been in storage during Trump’s term as President but is now being restored (reportedly be back in service by the end of 2021).
NASA previously used a 757 for its ARIES (Airborne Research Integrated Experiments System) program for safety and operations research. And the New Zealand Air Force operates two converted Combi aircraft for transport and VIP use.
And one of the more unusual uses has been as a touring aircraft for Iron Maiden. In 2008, one aircraft was chartered from Astraeus Airlines and used for the ‘Somewhere Back in Time World Tour’ covering 23 shows in 13 countries over just 45 days. Another was used for a tour in 2011 but the group switched to a 747 for the next tour in 2016.
The decline of the 757
The 757 boomed in the early 1990s, with more than 100 aircraft being delivered each year at peak. This had slowed by the early 200s. And the events of 9/11 and the slowdown in aviation followed significantly reduced demand for the 757 (with smaller widebodies becoming more popular). Orders being swapped to the 737 (most notably from Continential Airlines in 2003) sealed its fate.
Production of the 757 ended in 2004, and Boeing delivered the final aircraft in November 2005 to Shanghai Airlines – the 1,050th 757 built.
The 757 has suffered several earlier than planned retirements during the pandemic. As already discussed, this saw the early retirement of American Airlines’ fleet, amongst others.
As of June 2021, 508 aircraft remain in use with 46 carriers. With aircraft aging, there could well be more retirements before we are fully out of the pandemic, but we are likely to see the 757 in service for some time. Delta has not confirmed further retirement plans as yet. United Airlines is more likely to retire aircraft with orders for A321XLR aircraft set to replace them.
Finding a successor
Boeing ended production of the 757 without developing a direct replacement. The 737 MAX offers neither the range nor the hot and short-field performance of the 757 (although it does improve efficiency). Many view this as quite a loss for Boeing.
The upcoming A321XLR is being seen by some airlines as a good replacement option. It will offer an impressive range of up to 4,700 NM (8,700 kilometers), taking narrowbody flying further than ever before. But it won’t match the 757s performance in hot and high environments.
American Airlines was one of the first airlines to opt for the A321XLR, and it has 50 aircraft on order – likely to take up many of the old 757 routes. United is doing similar, also with 50 aircraft on order.
As for Boeing, there’s still no confirmed replacement. There has been discussion of a 757X that would re-engine the 757 and offer similar specifications, but no plans from Boeing. It was denied as a possibility in 2020, largely due to the 757s high production cost.
Anything from Boeing?
The Boeing New Midsize Aircraft (NMA), also dubbed the 797, was originally seen as a replacement for the 757 (but most likely as a widebody). The idea had seen interest from United (a major Boeing customer) and Delta Air Lines, Qantas, and Icelandair.
NMA plans were dropped in 2020 though, with attention and funds diverted by ongoing 737 MAX issues, as well as the pandemic. The launch of the A321XLR also led to a re-think of what should be offered.
There are plenty of options for where Boeing could go next. Re-visiting 757X ideas, a similar re-engined 767X, a return to 787-3 plans, or a new clean-sheet narrowbody are all possible. No doubt it will launch something soon or risk Airbus taking over more of the market. Whether this will offer the same features as the 757 remains to be seen.
The 757 remains a great aircraft but clearly falling out of favor as other options improve. Feel free to discuss its highlights and your thoughts on any future replacement in the comments.