The Rise And Fall Of The Boeing 767

The 767 has been an important aircraft for Boeing. Starting out in the early 1980s, it opened up transatlantic routes to twin-engines – a major development at the time. While it is not the best-selling widebody (the 777 takes that), it has had a long life, moving through several variants. More efficient aircraft have now taken over, but it remains in production and popular for cargo and logistics use.

DL 767-300er
The Boeing 767-300ER has been the most sold variant. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

Moving on from the Boeing 747

Boeing launched the 747 in 1970 (when it entered service with Pan Am), motivated by airline desire for an aircraft over twice the size of the 707. The 747 changed the economics of flying in several ways. It also introduced the concept of widebody – an aircraft wide enough to have two passenger aisles.

Boeing 707 and 747
The 747 increased capacity 2.5 times over the 707, and with that, introduced twin aisles. Photo: Getty Images

The widebody concept was popular, and Boeing soon looked to replicate it in a smaller capacity aircraft. Originally dubbed the 7X7, this project looked first at a twin-aisle short take-off and landing aircraft with a lower range, and either two or three engines.

This concept was not so popular with airlines, though. By 1976, Boeing switched the design to a widebody twinjet with a longer, transcontinental range. This was likely influenced by Airbus and the A300. The new European manufacturer launched its first aircraft in 1972 (entering service with Air France in 1974). This was the first twin-engine widebody, and Boeing needed to compete in the same market.

Developed alongside the 757

The 767 project was officially launched in 1978, with an order for 30 aircraft from United Airlines. Orders from American Airlines and Delta Air Lines soon followed. The Boeing factory at Everett was enlarged to handle production.

Boeing 767 Everett
All Boeing 767 have been built as the Everett site (this is a later freighter launch). Photo: Altair78 via Wikimedia

Boeing began 757 design and production shortly after the 767, and as a result, the two projects shared a lot. Much of the interior design, cockpit, and avionics were similar for the two aircraft (which helped airlines with commonality). The 757 also inherited the same wing design, just smaller. Airbus later did the same (and went further) with the A330 and A340.

Such joint design can save significant time and cost and allow for lower-cost development of a  niche aircraft (this is more the case with the A340 than the Boeing aircraft).

Boeing 757
The Boeing 757 shares a lot of design with the 767. Photo: Steve Fitzgerald via Wikimedia

Both the 757 and 767 were designed with fuel efficiency in mind. This may seem obvious today, with efficiency improvements a leading motivator in new aircraft designs. But it set the new twins apart from the competition at the time. Before this, capacity and jet performance had been more important considerations. The 767 aimed for an operating cost saving of between 20% and 30% over previous aircraft.

Launching the 767 in 1982

Following a ten-month test program with six aircraft, the first 767 entered service in September 1982 with United Airlines.

The 767 first flew in 1981 and entered service in 1982. Photo: Getty Images

The 767 was originally proposed with three different variants. The smaller 767-100 was dropped before construction, with the 757 offering similar capacity. And a three-engine variant, dubbed 767MR/LR, was dropped to focus more on twin-engine performance. The 767-200 was, therefore, the only variant offered at launch.

Boeing 727
The Boeing 727 that preceded the 757 and 767 was a tri-jet – moving away from this was a bold step. Photo: Getty Images

There was another difference with some early 767-200s in the cockpit. The 757 and 767 were Boeing’s first widebody designed with a two-person cockpit. The Airbus A300 (as the first widebody twin) also had a three-person cockpit.

This caused a few concerns from airlines, with crew used to three or more. United Airlines initially asked for a 767 version with a three-person cockpit but accepted two once it was deemed safe in the US. Ansett Australia, however, stood by a request for three-person cockpits (mainly due to pilot union demands) and was the only airline to receive early 767s configured this way.

Ansett Australia 767
Ansett Australia 767-200s were the only ones to have a three-person cockpit, with a flight engineer station on the right-hand side. Photo: Aero Icarus via Wikimedia

The 767 and ETOPS

The 1970s and 1980s were still very early days for twin-engine operations. As discussed, this was Boeing’s first twin-engine widebody. And there had been doubt during development, with the 767MR proposed as a three-engine alternative mainly to get around twin restrictions at the time. Airbus developed the joint A330/A340 twin and quadjet options largely to allow more options for airlines with this.

At launch, the 767 was restricted to operating no more than 90 minutes from a diversion airport. This prevented twins from operating commercial routes over the Atlantic (and, of course, elsewhere too). ETOPS regulations changed this from the mid-1980s.

ETOPS 90 767
With 90 minute restrictions, there are many areas the 767 can’t operate (shown shaded in the map). Image:

The first ETOPS 120 rating was given to a 767-200 in 1985. This was initially with TWA operating from Boston to Paris, but others followed. ETOPS 120 allowed aircraft to fly up to two hours from a suitable diversion airport. This opened up transatlantic routes to the 767 and marked the start of new possibilities for twins.

With ETOPS 120, twins such as the 767 could operate efficient transatlantic routes. Image:

ETOPS 180 was possible after at least one year of demonstrated performance under ETOPS 120. The 767 became the first aircraft to be certified for this in 1989.

Several 767 variants and mixed use

After moving through several variants, the 767 remains in production today – in both passenger and cargo configurations.

The original 767-200 was first upgraded within its first year, with the extended range variant 767-200ER. This kept the same fuselage design but offered increased payload and additional fuel capacity. Its range was increased to 6,385 nautical miles (11,825 kilometers), from the 767-200s 3,900 nautical miles (7,200 kilometers).

The 767-200ER was popular with US airlines, but also more internationally. Ethiopian Airlines placed the first order in 1982, and the type entered service with El Al in 1984.

American Airlines Boeing 767-200ER
American Airlines operated a fleet of 18 767-200ERs. Photo: Aero Icarus via Flickr

In 1986, Japan Airlines became the first customer for the stretched 767-300. This lengthened the fuselage by just over six meters and took capacity up to a maximum of 290, from 245 (typical two-class capacity though was 261 versus 214).

Boeing also offered the 767-300ER, entering service with American Airlines in 1988. Extended ETOPS was now in place, and the stretched 767-300 was popular with both US and international airlines, going on to be the most sold variant.

American 767-300ER
American Airlines operated 67 767-300ER aircraft before retirement in 2020. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

The 767-300 formed the basis for the type’s first cargo variant, which entered service with UPS in 1995. The 767-300F added a cargo access door and strengthened landing gear and wing structure. Many aircraft have also been converted to cargo use after passenger service.

DHL Boeing 767-300F
DHL is a large operator of the 767-300F. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

The final 767 variant was a further stretch to the 767-400ER. This came about largely to meet Delta Air Lines’s desire for a replacement for its Lockheed L-1011 TriStar aircraft. Continental Airlines was also interested as a replacement for its DC-10s, and it became the launch customer in September 2000.

With the 767-400ER, passenger capacity was increased to 296 (as a typical two-class capacity, with 375 possible as a maximum exit limit). The range though was slightly lower than both the -200ER and -300ER, but expected for higher capacity.

The Rise And Fall Of The Boeing 767
The 767-400ER was the lowest selling variant, with only 38 built. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

767 orders and operators

In total, Boeing has delivered 1,215 767 aircraft (based on data from Boeing). It remains in production, with 93 outstanding orders for freighter (767-300F) and tanker aircraft (767-2C).

Looking at the main variants, Boeing has delivered the following aircraft:

  • 767-200: 128 aircraft
  • 767-200ER: 121 aircraft
  • 767-300: 104 aircraft
  • 767-300ER: 583 aircraft
  • 767-300F: 195 aircraft
  • 767-400ER: 38 aircraft

As of July 2021, 697 of these remain in active use. The largest operators are the cargo airlines, with FedEx Express operating 104 aircraft and UPS Airlines 78. There is continued interest in cargo aircraft – both with these new orders and second-hand purchases and conversions. Amazon, for example, has taken on several 767s from Delta and WestJet.

Delta Air Lines is the largest passenger operator still, with 69 767s (48 767-300ER and 21 767-400ER aircraft). Closely following is United Airlines with 54 aircraft (38 767-300ER and 16 767-400ER). American Airlines retired its fleet in 2020 amidst a pandemic-induced move to simplification.

Delta Boeing 767-300Er
Delta operates the largest passenger fleet of 767s in 2021. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

Outside the US, Japanese airlines are the largest remaining operators. Japan Airlines operates 31 aircraft, and ANA 29 aircraft (based on data from LATAM Peru still operates 15 aircraft, and LATAM Brasil operates 13.

Japan Airlines 767
Japan Airlines operates 29 767-300ERs (and two 767-300s). Photo: Ken H via Wikimedia

Decline as efficiency improves

After the launch of the 767-400ER in 2000, there were plans to take the 767 further. Boeing had earlier discussed a larger 767X aircraft with a wider fuselage and had plans for an even longer-range 767-400ERX. The early 2000s was not a good time for the airline industry, though, and plans for this were dropped in 2001.

Instead, Boeing concentrated on a new, more efficient replacement aircraft, dubbed the 7E7. This soon became the Boeing 787. And any plans for a higher capacity 767X were absorbed into the 777 program.

The 787 entered service with ANA in 2011, representing a step up in efficiency. Photo: Getty Images

With more efficient engines and composite fuselage construction, the 787 offered a much lower-cost operation. With a similar capacity to the 767, it’s no surprise that several airlines have taken the 787 as a replacement for aging 767s.

While the 777 and the 787 took over as passenger options, the 767 has remained a popular aircraft for cargo use. It also remains popular as an air-to-air refueling tanker. Boeing still has 93 orders to deliver – all of them in freighter or tanker configuration.

A re-engined 767X?

There is one change could keep the 767 in production longer – upgrading with new technology and engines. This is not an impossible undertaking. The 737, of course, has moved through several versions since the 1970s. It remains well in production with the 737 MAX. The 777 remains alive, with the much-anticipated 777X on its way.

The 777 has been re-engined for the new 777X – could something similar happen to the 767? Photo: Getty Images

There has been a lot of discussion about a new mid-sized offering from Boeing. Boeing has had plans for a New Midsize Aircraft (NMA) since around 2015. This was understood to be a clean-sheet proposal, as a replacement for the 757 but a widebody like the 767. It would have a higher capacity of 220, with a possible stretched version taking it to 267.

The NMA was dropped, though, in 2020. This came about amidst ongoing delays to the 737 MAX program and associated costs for Boeing. The Airbus A321XLR also played a part. With this confirmed by Airbus, and the new long-range widebody already taking orders from many airlines, Boeing wanted to revisit its plans for the next aircraft.

A321XLR Image
Boeing needs to offer something to compete with the A321XLR – an updated 767 is one of several options. Photo: Airbus

Nothing has yet been confirmed about what will come next. A new clean-sheet midsize aircraft seems unlikely given the current market and the need to launch something soon to compete with Airbus. Any update to existing aircraft could involve the 737, 757, 767, or even the 787. Each has its challenges, and while an updated 767 is not the most likely, it is possible.

With almost 100 outstanding orders, the 767 program is not over yet. Do you think we will since a new version developed? Feel free to discuss this or the highlights of the aircraft’s service since the 1980s further in the comments.