Boeing remains so bogged down with both the 737 MAX grounding and engine issues plaguing other fleets that it hasn’t been able to put out an airplane to truly replace the 757. Sure, early work on the so-called “Middle of the Market” (MoM) airplane is well underway, but it still hasn’t been launched and it is many years away from actually flying. Meanwhile, Airbus is taking action. It officially launched the A321XLR last week at the Paris Air Show and was immediately rewarded with commitments for more than 200 of the airplanes. This is the first airplane that can truly replace the 757, and in fact, it can do much more than that.
The Majestic and Versatile 757
The 757 was an airplane that was overbuilt for its original purpose. When airlines first took delivery in the early 1980s, it was a domestic airplane meant to replace the 727. But over time, the 737 took on that role as it continued to be stretched and re-engined. By the time production of the 757 stopped in the early 2000s, the writing was already on the wall. Boeing bet that a stretched but range-limited 757-300 would be the next logical step. It was not a success. A longer range 757-200ER version never happened. Instead, the 757 would remain a great niche airplane to serve thin, longish- distance routes but it had no other place in Boeing’s catalog.
Continental learned this early when it started deploying the airplane from Newark into secondary European markets. The airplane also found a home with other airlines flying routes like the West Coast to Hawai’i or Miami to mid-Latin America. The 757 could theoretically stretch to a range of just over 4,000 nautical miles (nm) but in practice it wasn’t quite that good. For example, Newark to Berlin/Tegel was flown at 3,980nm but in the winter it often had to make a stop going westbound against those stiff winds. The realistic range was somewhat less than that.
Still, the airplane was a rock star that showed the real opportunity that existed to fly narrowbodies on long, thin routes that couldn’t otherwise support nonstop service. The unique characteristics of the airplane made it versatile, but it was also an older generation aircraft. The airlines loved what the airplane could do, but they needed something more efficient.
Boeing’s answer to the 757 replacement question was the same answer it always had… stretch the 737 some more. The 737 MAX 9 has a published range of 3,550nm so it’s likely much less than that in reality. The MAX 10’s range is less than that. Sure it can handle some routes the 757 flies, but most of Europe is out of the question. It’s possible the new MoM (or 797) will be launched, but that is years and years away from actually flying for an airline. Boeing really has nothing in this market for the foreseeable future.
And that would explain why the legacy airlines have clung to their 757s. Of the 1,050 757s built, 688 are still active according to Airfleets, but many of those are cargo. In fact, there are only 7 passengers airlines with more than 10 757s flying.
Delta has the most and remains the one airline that still regularly deploys the airplane on shorter domestic flights. But American is probably the most interesting one to look at on this list.
An American Case Study
American has whittled down its fleet of 757s dramatically since the US Airways merger. That process continues this fall when it will be replaced in the Hawai’i market entirely with A321neos. That leaves the fleet mostly focused on East Coast to Europe and Miami to Latin America. Some of these are new 757s, but “new” means they’re 17+ years old. American has been waiting for a replacement.
Enter the A321XLR. This airplane is, of course, just an A321neo but with much longer legs. It has a published range of 4,700nm. While it likely won’t be that good in practice, it will still beat the 757 handily.
American wasted no time and quickly ordered 50 of them with delivery starting in 2023. (It actually converted 30 A321neos into XLRs and added 20 new orders.) Some of these will replace the 757s. They may also replace some of those 767 exploratory routes. You know what I mean — routes like Philly to Dubrovnik or Miami to Cordoba that may or may not work, but on which American figured it could throw some old 767s and take a low-risk swing.
The A321XLR opens up an incredible number of new route possibilities. From Philly, nearly all of Europe is in range, and the same can be said from any city in the Northeast. From Florida, all of South America is in range down to even Buenos Aires and Santiago. Heck, much of South America is even in range from the Northeast. With the vastly improved operating economics of the A321XLR, American will be able to try a lot of new routes that it couldn’t serve before.
Beyond the Replacement
For American, it’s an easy sell because of the need to replace those 757s. But other less likely airlines are seeing the combination of capacity, range, and economics and are also seeing value. This is where Boeing should be nervous. All one has to do is look at the initial orders for the airplane to see its potential. Here’s a list so far:
|Aer Lingus||6||Firm order|
|Air Lease Corporation||27||LOI|
|Middle East Airlines||4||Firm order|
Sure, some of these are conversions from neo orders, but that’s irrelevant. Just look at the variety of airlines that show an interest here and imagine what they can do with it.
Middle East Airlines can fly the airplane from Beirut to nearly anywhere in Europe, Africa, and Asia. Qantas, an airline that has the 737 as its narrowbody backbone, can fly it from Perth to anywhere in Southeast Asia or even parts of India. Heck, Qantas can even reach into parts of Southeast from Sydney. For example Sydney to Phuket is less than 4,000nm.
Possibly most interesting, however, is what Indigo Partners is doing. It has picked up 50 airplanes to distribute between Frontier, JetSMART, and Wizz. Where can Frontier use this? I imagine the first focus will be on deeper penetration into Latin markets, but Europe is certainly an option. Wizz may see those same opportunities, but it can also head east. How about Budapest to India? And JetSMART down in Chile is undoubtedly looking to point those planes north as far as they can go. This is a huge opportunity to get great economics on longer haul flights without having to fill too many seats. Long-haul, low-cost has never worked but Indigo is betting that this airplane will change the equation.
This airplane has the ability to do what the 787 did for longer haul markets. Some may complain about flying a narrowbody long distances, but those complaints are misguided. People will take a nonstop over a connection any day, and this should open up options for a lot more nonstops.
So long, 757. Your good work here is finally wrapping up. Enjoy retirement and let the new kid on the block take over.