You all have likely experienced it and utilized it. It is ubiquitous and extremely well known for its performance, capability, and versatility. Despite the title, I am not writing about the No. 2 pencils common in schools, but rather Boeing’s venerable 757 – dubbed the “flying pencil” for its long and narrow appearance. Reliable and common like a pencil, the 757 is central to the networks of today’s largest airlines. Now aircraft OEMs face pressure to replace the ageing platform with something even better – substituting pencils with pens, so to speak.
First built in 1982, Boeing designed the 757 to replace the smaller 727 on short to medium haul routes. With room for 200 passengers compared to the 727’s capacity of 150, the aircraft is ideal for denser route pairings. The aircraft features a choice of powerful Rolls Royce RB211 or Pratt & Whitney PW2000 turbofans that, in combination with a relatively large wing, give the aircraft excellent takeoff performance – critical for operating at airports with short runways or at high altitude. With all this, the 757 boasts a maximum range of 4,100 nautical miles, making it perfect for transatlantic or transcontinental flights, especially on “thin” routes that do not warrant larger capacity twin-aisle aircraft. Furthermore, airline management teams are satisfied with the aircraft’s common type rating with the 767 and similar systems, thereby reducing costs.
Fast-forwarding 32 years, the 757 has ended production as of 2004 and there are 832 remaining in active service out of 1,050 delivered. In the United States, the aircraft remains popular, notably among Delta, United, and American. In Europe, a number of charter operators, like Thomson Airways, continue to operate the aircraft in dense seat configurations to popular leisure destinations.
However, the aircraft has an obvious age problem. The average age of the active fleet today is 21 years, but because there is currently no true replacement, the average retirement age for the 757 is around 30 years, or about three years more than a typical narrowbody aircraft. While it is outliving some of its narrowbody compadres, it still mandates a replacement.
Thus is the conundrum that Airbus and Boeing face. Both are in the middle of major development programs, and Boeing in particular is recovering from the 787 production hangover. In fact, Boeing CEO Jim McNerney stated that the manufacturer’s philosophy going forward will not involve “moonshots,” but instead will focus on derivative programs and harvesting current technology. Neither manufacturer is in the mood for the risk of another clean-sheet design right now.
So, I pose again, how do you replace a pencil? How do you replace such a commonplace, reliable, and indispensable tool with something that is at least 20% more efficient? At the same time, how do you avoid a “moonshot” and the associated risk and costs?
Airbus has decided to seize a copy of Boeing’s 1982 playbook and has announced the development of the A321neoLR, a derivative of the A321neo with extra range accomplished by activation of an auxiliary fuel tank that should exceed the 757’s current range. By building these aircraft concurrently, similar to how the 757 and 767 were built, Airbus is no doubt hoping to achieve higher program profitability by sharing the non-recurring engineering (NRE) costs.
Airbus’ first-mover tactics have placed Boeing in an interesting position. Boeing has already announced it will not build a long-range version of the 737 MAX 9 to counter Airbus, perhaps realizing that there is limited room for differentiation and sales between two manufacturers for a niche aircraft. A re-engined version of the current 757 also seems out of the question since the tooling and supply chain are highly diminished, and the technology platform is obsolete.
At this moment, Boeing does not seem to be concerned about a 757 replacement, but the implications reach beyond the next 5-10 years. With the announced intention of building a clean-sheet 737 replacement by 2030, more questions arise around the potential configuration of such an aircraft. Could it be a 757 replacement, even though the A321neoLR will have been in production already for a number of years? If so, would this mean that Boeing views the center of the market at 180-200 seats, rather than the current 150? If fuel prices continue to decline, how does this change the future product offering? Lastly, new entrants like Japan’s Mitsubishi and China’s Comac may pose additional sales competition in the narrowbody segment with new models. Therefore, while Boeing may not attempt to replace the pencil today, it may have to face the task in the next decade.