ANALYSIS: Will US carriers get the 757 replacement they want?

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American Airlines and Delta Air Lines are continuing to push for a replacement of long-haul Boeing 757-200 aircraft.

Both carriers use the aircraft to fly between the USA and western Europe, near South America and Hawaii – routes that are, by and large, just outside of the reach of the next generation Airbus A321neo and Boeing 737 Max 9.

“The 757 is a unique airplane today,” says Scott Kirby, president of Fort Worth, Texas-based American, at the Phoenix International Aviation Symposium. “As a narrowbody, it has an unique cost structure that can serve a set of markets where it’s the only narrowbody that can serve [them].”

Even a small next generation widebody, like the Boeing 787-8, does not work in the 757’s unique market, he says.

“The reality is, no matter what you do, with a widebody aircraft physics is physics and it’s going to have more drag and it’s going to be more expensive to fly,” says Kirby.

American and its US Airways subsidiary are heavy users of 757-200s on flights from its New York JFK and Philadelphia hubs to cities in western Europe, from Miami to near South America, and from Phoenix – a notably hot and high airport – and Los Angeles to Hawaii.

Most of those routes are just outside the 3,650nm (6,760km) maximum range of the A321neo and 3,595nm range of the 737 Max 9. The 757-200 has a maximum range of 3,900nm.

American and US Airways combined operate 111 757-200s, of which 106 are equipped with winglets – typically indicative of long-range capabilities – Flightglobal’s Ascend Online database shows.

Kirby is not alone.

“It’s really disappointing that there’s no 757 replacement,” says Bob Cortelyou, senior vice-president of network planning at Atlanta-based Delta, at the symposium. “I really think Boeing made a mistake with that.”

He describes the performance of the carrier’s 757s on flights across the Atlantic and to South America as “incredible”.

Delta operates 135 757-200s, of which 63 are equipped with winglets, according to Flightglobal’s Ascend Online database.

Aer Lingus, Icelandair and United Airlines are other carriers who are known to be interested in a long-range 757 replacement.

Boeing has hinted at a possible replacement for a number of years. The Chicago-based airframer confirmed in February that it is in the early stages of a study of the market for a new 200-300 seater with a range of 4,000-5,000nm.

John Wojick, senior vice-president of global sales at Boeing, said that the project is in the “study and customer requirement phase” and that it had “an awful lot of discussions to go with our customers”.

One of the biggest issues facing a 757 replacement is customer demand.

The majority of 757-200s operating today can be replaced by either current generation A321 and 737-900ER aircraft – American, Delta and United have chosen this route for their domestic 757 fleets – or next generation A321neo and 737 Max 9 aircraft – Hawaiian Airlines is betting on the former to expand its Hawaii-West Coast service from 2017.

“We strongly think the A321 is an aircraft that is, to a certain extent, a replacement of the 757,” says Enrique Beltranena, chief executive of Volaris, at the symposium.

However, the Mexican ultra low-cost carrier does not need the longer range of the 757 for its network where the longest route is 3,217km (1,999 miles) from Mexico City to Oakland.

Norman Liu, president and chief executive of GECAS, said in March that he sees demand for about 100 plus long-range 757-sized aircraft in the future and calls a potential replacement from Boeing a “futuristic possibility”.

Kirby acknowledges that there is a “relatively narrow set of markets” that the 757-200 is suited for but thinks Boeing could broaden its appeal.

“If you can extend the range a little, which you probably could with a new generation narrowbody, you’d open up even more markets,” he says, referring to American’s existing usage pattern for the aircraft to Europe and South America.

US airlines appear a long way from finding out if they will get a 757 replacement. Much will depend on wider demand for the aircraft, the availability of engines to power it and Boeing’s development resources.