April 7, 2016
WHAT BOEING NEEDS to build isn’t a fancy new long-range widebody. What it needs to build is a replacement for the 757.
When it debuted in the early 1980s, the twin-engined 757 was ahead of its time, and it went on to sell quite well until the production line closed twelve years ago. By now the plane is — or should be — obsolete. Indeed it’s rare to spot a 757 outside of the United States. But here at home it remains popular, a mainstay of the fleets at United, American and Delta, who together operate over three hundred of them. They’ve kept the plane on their rosters so long for good reason: it’s one of a kind, and there’s nothing that can replace it.
The 757 is maybe the most versatile jetliner Boeing has ever built — a medium-capacity, high-performing plane that is able to turn a profit on both short and longer-haul routes — domestic or international; across the Mississippi or across the North Atlantic. The 757 makes money flying between New York and Europe, and also between Atlanta and Jacksonville. United and Delta fly 757s from their East Coast gateways on eight-hour services to Ireland, Scandinavia, and even Africa. You’ll also see it on 60-minute segments into Kansas City, Cleveland, and Tampa.
Along the way, it meets every operational challenge. Short runway? Stiff headwinds? Full payload? No problem. With 180 passengers on board, the plane can safely depart from a 6,000-foot runway, lifting off at a measly 135 knots (assuming flaps at 15 or 20), climb directly to 39,000 feet, and fly clear across the country. Nothing else can do that.
And it’s a good-looking machine to boot. Muscular yet graceful.
I know this in part because I’ve been piloting the 757 for the past eight years, along with its somewhat bigger sibling, the 767. The 787 is an excellent replacement for the latter, but what’s going to supersede the 757?
Boeing is pitching its latest 737 variants as the right plane for the job. Am I the only one rolling my eyes?
What I think about the 737 is that Boeing took what essentially was a regional jet — the original 737-100 first flew in 1967, and was intended to carry fewer than a hundred passengers — and has pushed, pushed, pushed, pushed, and pushed the thing to the edge of its envelope, through a long series of derivatives, from the -200 through the -900, and now onward to the 737 “MAX.” In other words it has been continuously squeezed into missions it was never really intended for. The plane flies poorly and, for a jet of its size, uses huge amounts of runway and has startlingly high takeoff and landing speeds. Its range allows for cross-country pairings, but transoceanic markets are out of the question.
I was wedged into the cockpit jumpseat of an American Airlines 737-800 not long ago, flying from Los Angeles to Boston. (In years past, coast-to-coast flights were always on widebody DC-10s or L-1011s.) Man if we didn’t need every foot of LAX’s runway 25R, at last getting off the ground at a nearly supersonic 160 knots — thank god we didn’t blow a tire — then slowly step-climbing our way to cruise altitude. What would it have been like in the opposite direction, I wondered — a longer flight, from a shorter runway, in the face of winter headwinds?
The 737’s poorly designed cockpit is incredibly cramped and noisy. The passenger cabin, meanwhile, is skinny and uncomfortable, using a fuselage cross-section unchanged from the Boeing 707, engineered in the 1950s.
What Boeing has long needed to do is design us a whole new airframe — let’s call it the 797 — that can equal the 757’s remarkable combination of performance and economy, but with more fuel-efficient engines, a modernized flight deck and a new cabin. This is well within the technical expertise, if not the imagination, of the world’s largest plane-maker.
It’s not that Boeing hasn’t looked into this. The company insists, however, that the market for such a plane, estimated at anywhere from 300 to a thousand examples, is too limited, be it an entirely new model, or even just a 757 enhancement. As a point of comparison, Boeing says that it won’t break even on its super-successful 787 program until at least 1,500 individual aircraft have been sold. If this is true, it’s a sad testament to how expensive it has become to develop new airframes.
Meanwhile we get more and more 737s, the plane that kind of, sort of, almost does the job, but not really.
Airbus, for its part, says that its A321, a stretched-out version of the A320, is the more adequate replacement. Perhaps it is, but this plane, too, fails to match the 757’s range or payload capabilities. An upcoming variant, the A321 “neo,” might prove to be more suitable, we’ll see. If so, and if Airbus begins to rack up orders, then shame on Boeing. If a whole new plane was out of the question, couldn’t they at least have updated the existing one, perhaps with new engines, before shutting down the line altogether?
For now there’s nothing to fill its shoes. And so the 757 flies on.
The 737, for all its popularity, seems relegated to second-class status outside the U.S. The only legacy European carriers that still fly the 737 are KLM and the much troubled SAS. Air France, Lufthansa, and British Airways, among others, all have retired them. Turkish Airlines, one of the new global heavy-hitters, switched its focus to the A320 some time ago. In Asia you see only a few. It’s mostly the LCC and secondary carriers that still seem to like them. Ryanair, for example. Or GOL in South America.
Explain to me, too: The 737 and the A320 are basically the same size, and designed for the same mission. How is it that the A320’s cockpit is four times roomier than the 737’s?