The Redemption of the 757

How the US Airlines Finally Realized its Extraordinary Capabilities


Photo By Rolf Wallner – Website

The market opportunities of new aircraft programs are often constrained by the limitations of the past. These new designs tend to be evaluated on current networks, drawn to circumvent the now outdated limitations of the older fleets. It can take years for operators to realize the full potential of an aircraft as they slowly discover how their networks can be adjusted to take advantage of new capabilities. Only then does the aircraft rise to its true potential, re-drawing route maps and creating a new market for future aircraft to emulate. That, in a nutshell, is the story of the 757.

The career of the 757 can be separated into two distinct roles:

1. What it was designed to do

2. What it could actually do

Originally billed as a 727 replacement, the 757 was designed to replace the former workhorse on short range trunk routes with sufficient field performance to match. With the massive market potential of the 727, all eyes were on replacement of that aircraft with the improved economics of a two person flight deck, twin high bypass engines, and a supercritical wing.

Boeing ultimately delivered a total of 1,104 757s, 767 of which were destined for the U.S. market, nearly 70% of the program. Yet, it took several decades before the true capabilities of the 757 were fully realized. Through the first decade of the program, few U.S. airlines were taking full advantage of the available 255,000 lb max takeoff weight and 43,500 lbs of thrust per side. The early economics of the 757 proved it to be a worthy 727 replacement with little need to push the aircraft into new frontiers and markets.

Changing Missions

As a strong airfield performer, the 757 found early ability to operate into challenging airfields. The aircraft was able to find niches in ski markets (such as Eagle / Vail with a short runway at moderate altitudes) or extremely high altitude Latin American markets (such as Lapaz, Bolivia at over 13,300 ft. elevation). This performance also allowed an airport to extend its reach off of shorter runways as well, such as Washington’s DCA and Orange County’s SNA airports. The dual truck main landing gear (using four tires rather than the traditional two found most often on narrow-body aircraft) allowed the 757 to spread the weight of the aircraft to operate into smaller airports where 727s had operated, yet where pavement may not have been strong enough for other large aircraft.

Winglets developed by Aviation Partners extended the range of the 757 by up to 200 nm. Photo by Dylan Ashe Website

Yet, challenging airfields never represented beyond 8% of the 757’s combined take-offs and landings in the U.S. Today, only about 3% of the 757s departures are associated with challenging airfields. As much as superior airfield performance has been associated with the 757, it is the aircraft’s range that has produced the greatest amount of evolution over time.

As successful as the 757 was in replacing aging narrow-bodies, it took until the middle of the ’90s for the aircraft to be used substantially on longer-haul markets. During a time of new ETOPS regulations for twin aircraft, the 757 began operating to Hawaii, replacing the traditionally used wide-body aircraft such as the DC-10, L-1011, and 747. This was the first substantial evolution for the aircraft away from its original 727 replacement mission, but not the last.

The Narrow-body Across the Atlantic

In addition to the the Hawaiian routes and the benefits of the 180-minute ETOPS, the 757 eventually found a significant market across the Atlantic. Operated by several European carriers, such as Icelandair, Air Europa, and Monarch, any trans-Atlantic activity by the American carriers in the early 1990s was largely limited. American Trans Air operated trans-Atlantic military charters, and Continental flew a handful of Newark markets on 757s specially configured with 11 fewer seats. Trans-Atlantic flying on the 757 did not begin in earnest until 2006. Eventually, it would grow to over 10% of the fleet’s departures and 21% of the miles flown by 2015.

The ability to reach these long haul markets was aided by the introduction of winglets in 2005. With a decrease in fuel burn of up to 5%, the new winglets could be retrofit onto 757s, increasing the available payload by 10,000 lbs and the range by 230 miles. This opened markets into deep South America, as well, including ATL-REC, the longest 757 route flown for Delta at 4,334 miles. (Interestingly, TWA also flew 757s to Honolulu from their St. Louis hub from 1998 – 2001, well before the addition of the winglets. This would be the longest 757 segment by a scheduled U.S. legacy at 4,129 miles, until Northwest began Detroit to Frankfurt service in 2007).

Looking at the breakdown of miles flown by the 757 fleet since 1990, the new missions begin to stand out. Short-haul hub flying gave way to the longer-haul, thin route markets for which the 757 would become so well suited. United began flying their first 757s to Hawaii by connecting Maui to their San Francisco hub. Smaller markets began opening up on the mainland, as well as on the islands with more direct service to secondary cities such as OGG, LIH, and KOA.

The same became true of trans-Atlantic flying, with secondary cities such as Pittsburgh and Hartford enjoying service to Europe on 757s. The range of the aircraft made it a staple of transcontinental flying in the U.S., however a recent trend of introducing lie-flat seats to that market has produced a resurgence in transcon flying for the 757. Even with the aging fleet, the 757 still flies the second most seats between the largest transcontinental markets, after the A321.

The robust design of the 757 made available a fuselage stretch with the 757-300. Entering service with Condor in 1999, it became the longest narrow-body in history seating up to 295. Yet, it proved to be range rather than seats that was important to the airlines as only 55 757-300s were ever produced. With the additional seats came an increase in runway required of almost 2,000 ft. and a reduction in range of 500 miles. This made the -300 variant too limited to reliably operate across the Atlantic, and it remained largely confined to trunk route flying in the U.S. with Northwest and Continental (all still in operation today with Delta and United).

The Legacy of the 757 in Future Programs

As the 757 begins its sunset into passenger retirement, its legacy as a new market pathfinder is secure. The past 35 years have shown a drastic change in the mission of the 757; from a 727 replacement to changing the medium-haul landscape as we knew it. The original 727 replacement market for which the aircraft was designed, has ballooned into a much longer and more specialized 757 market for which, ironically, the next generation of aircraft are now being assessed. Opening thin, new international routes has become a requirement for which Boeing is developing the NMA, and for which Airbus has extended the capabilities of the A321 into the latest, and most 757-esque variant, the A321XLR.

This has created a unique challenge for the manufacturers who have been asked to replace the capable 757 with it’s expansive market size. Boeing, in particular, are seeing the routes uniquely suited for the 757 being replaced by Airbus’ A321, and not their own 737-900s. Even United, who is not (yet?) an A321 customer, has been dedicated to the 757 in the ultra-competitive LA and San Francisco to New York market.

Boeing is hard at work with the NMA aircraft, which is rumored to be in the final design phase. The A321 has been early out of the gate with the closest capabilities to the 757. (See article: Can the A321XLR Replace Wide-Body Aircraft Across the Atlantic? History Suggests it Can). Lacking the challenging airfield capabilities of the 757, the A321 will still be able to accomplish 97% of the 757 missions through the XLR variant. Yet it is Boeing’s NMA which could take the torch from the 757’s true mission; extending beyond the original replacement requirements into new markets not yet realized by the airlines.

The 757 found redemption, just three years too late.

In this way, the true spirit of the 757 becomes apparent. At just over 1,100 deliveries, it pales in comparison to the over 7,000 737 NGs that have been sold. As such, the aircraft has been judged harshly by history’s critics. Yet, for an aircraft that was designed as a 727 replacement, it only grew into its true potential as a serious long-haul player beyond 2006, with Boeing announcing the cancellation of the program in 2003. The 757 found redemption, just three years too late. With the recent trend of re-engined variants and increased payload capabilities, we can’t help but wonder what could have been possible had the same been applied in earnest to the 757.

The idea of a re-engined 757 was discarded as recently as 2015, and rightly so, as the economics could not keep up with the re-engining efforts of a newer generation of A320s and 737s. However, this was 12 years after the cancellation of the program. A 12-year head-start for any aircraft is a program in its own right. For perspective, the E-190 was in service only eight years before its re-engined program, the E2, was announced. Instead of inquiring whether the 757 can once again be produced with new engines, the question is better asked why that couldn’t have happened 12 years prior.

What new aircraft are being judged on the limitations of current technology?

Even through its redemption, there is a lesson to be learned from the 757. What new aircraft are being judged based on the limitations of current technology, and what is possible? Having seen this first hand with the path-finding capabilities of the C Series, it is challenging to convey the new market opportunities in an understandably risk-adverse industry. New aircraft such as the NMA, A321XLR, C919, and MRJ Spacejet will undoubtedly change the landscape of the industry. The airlines who first understand how and exploit the new capabilities will find themselves at a large advantage.

But through all of the drama surrounding the 757 replacement, the aircraft is long from retired. Delta still has over 100 in their fleet, and both United and American still deploy the aircraft. The superior payload capabilities will allow this beautiful aircraft to continue to grace our skies, only more often under the stars as a freighter.

Its main role as a freighter? 727 replacement… for now.

Courtney Miller

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