The multi-purpose Boeing 757 remains peerless four decades after its first flight. Mark Broadbent charts the history of the ‘Swiss army penknife’ of aviation and considers operator options to replace the enduring all-rounder.
Whether flying bleary-eyed passengers on early morning trips across the Atlantic, shuttling freight between cargo hubs or ferrying holidaymakers across Europe, few airliners undertake such a variety of tasks as the Boeing 757. Add transporting VIPs, supporting humanitarian operations or trialling new technologies to its CV and the effectiveness of the multi-tasker cannot be overstated.
Yet, this stalwart of the commercial aircraft scene does not rank highly on the list of the biggest-selling airliners. The total 1,049 production examples delivered to customers from 1983 to 2005 pales against other types.
Despite the arrival of new-generation midsize aircraft with better efficiency, the 757 is not easily replaceable. With useful life remaining in many, others finding new uses and the withdrawal of the type expected to be a relatively slow process, it appears set to remain a mainstay of the commercial aircraft industry.
The initial variant was the 757-200, which entered service with Eastern Air Lines in January 1983 following certification. It is certified for a maximum capacity of 239 seats, has a 255,00lb (116,000kg) maximum take-off weight (MTOW) and 3,850nm (7,130km) range with a full payload. Engines used include the Rolls-Royce RB211-535E4/E4B and the Pratt & Whitney PW2037 and PW2040.
Boeing built 913 757-200s. Many of these aircraft, especially those with the ‘big three’ mainline US carriers – Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and American Airlines – were later equipped with Aviation Partners Boeing (APB) Blended Winglets to improve their performance.
These devices were developed in the late 1990s, initially for the 737NG, to reduce the induced drag disrupting the efficient circulation of air around the wing. They were later approved for the 757 and the equipped aircraft were designated 757-200W or 757-200WL. As well as cutting fuel burn, the winglets extend range from the basic 3,915nm (7,250km) to 4,100nm (7,600km).
The 757-200 was the basis for several other variants: the 757-200PF (Production Freighter), 757-200M convertible and the 757-200SF aftermarket conversion.
The 757-200PF was developed to cater for the overnight package delivery needs of cargo airlines, offering a medium- to long-range aircraft able to fly key trunk routes between hubs. UPS Airlines received 75 between 1987 and 1998, accounting for the bulk of the variant’s 80-aircraft production run.
The 757-200PF can carry up to 15 standard-sized (15 x 25in/381 x 635mm) containers on its main deck in a 6,600 cu ft (187m3) volume, with loading and unloading carried out through an upward-opening door on its forward port-side fuselage. Two lower holds (one forward of the wings, one aft) provide 1,830 cu ft (51.8m3) of space for bulk cargo.
A UPS Airlines spokesperson told AIR International the 757-200PF can carry a maximum 86,900lb (39,417kg) load on the main deck. The variant has a maximum take-off weight of 255,000lb (115,666kg) and 3,150nm (5,830km) range. The -200M convertible version, also known as the 757-200 Combi, can carry both cargo and passengers on its main deck. It retains the base aircraft’s passenger windows and cabin doors but adds the -200PF’s forward port-side cargo door.
The -200M carries two to four cargo pallets on its main deck, along with up to 148 passengers in the remaining cabin space. It has RB211-535E4 engines and an increased MTOW of 240,000lb (109,000kg).
Nepal Airlines was the only carrier to order a production 757-200M for its requirement to serve Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu, but numerous 757-200s have undergone passenger to freighter (P2F) conversion. Pemco World Air Services in Tampa, Florida, Precision Conversions in Portland, Oregon and VT Mobile Aerospace Engineering in Mobile, Alabama each offer aftermarket conversions that modify the forward portion of the aircraft to provide room for up to ten cargo pallets and 58 passenger seats. Customers have included the Air Transport Services Group, National Airlines and North American Airlines.
Another conversion option is the -200SF (Special Freighter), offered by Boeing Wichita in Kansas, 321 Precision Conversions in Oregon, ST Aerospace in Singapore and IAI in Israel. It has a main-deck cargo capacity for 14 pallets.
Most -200SFs are operated by FedEx Express, which has 109 jets. Other users include DHL, whose various carriers – including DHL Air UK at Nottingham East Midlands Airport, EAT Leipzig, DHL Latin America in Fort Lauderdale and Blue Dart in India – fly a total of 35. The last new 757 variant was the stretched-fuselage -300, which entered service with Condor in 1999. The variant combines the -200’s basic design with an extended fuselage: at 178ft 7in (54.5m) it is the longest single-aisle twinjet yet built.
Its extra length means it features a retractable tailskid on the aft fuselage to avoid tail strikes. The model carries up to 280 passengers as standard, with a maximum certified capacity of 295, a higher MTOW of 272,500lb (124,000kg) and 3,395nm (6,290km) range.
The -300 was specifically designed to serve the charter airline market and launch operator Condor ordered it specifically to serve its high-density holiday routes. The variant is also used by Delta (which absorbed aircraft ordered by Northwest Airlines), United and Icelandair.
Why is the 757 so popular?
With more seats than single-aisles but fewer than the smallest twin-aisle widebodies, the 757 was designed principally to let airlines add capacity to high-frequency short- and medium-haul shuttle services in the US.
The ‘big three’ US majors initially used 757s, predominantly on high-density trunk routes, and they continue to operate the type on some transcontinental services. In February, for example, American was flying 757s on New York-Los Angeles, Charlotte-Boston, Charlotte-Dallas/Fort Worth, Philadelphia-Vail/Eagle and Phoenix-Hawaii routes.
Charter operators elsewhere, such as Condor, TUI and Jet2.com in Europe, also use 757s to serve high-demand routes. The freighter 757s similarly provides capacity along ‘the spokes’ from the regional hubs of cargo carriers, thereby complementing the larger widebody types they use to fly intercontinental routes.
When AIR International spoke with UPS Airlines, the carrier had rostered 757s to fly from its European hub in Cologne to Stockholm, from its main Worldport hub in Louisville to Jacksonville, from Miami to Managua and from Shenzhen to Clark International in the Philippines.
The 757’s range also means it can fly intercontinental services while European operators have long used the type to operate seasonal routes to Caribbean and US East Coast destinations.
The right size
The type’s range has also enabled the 757 to fill a niche: operating so-called ‘thin’ transatlantic routes – the services from the US majors’ large US East Coast hubs to secondary European destinations, where passenger volumes are insufficient to justify using a higher capacity widebody.
These routes currently include American’s Philadelphia-Reykjavík and United’s Washington-Madrid services. This March, United is set to put the type onto a New York Newark-Porto route and two months later Delta will start flying them from Boston to Manchester and London Gatwick. Such services would be unviable were it not for the 757.
Network airlines must also manage seasonal shifts in passenger travel patterns and the 757’s characteristics gives carriers a useful tool in ‘right-sizing’. Its size and range enable a route to continue if demand drops and makes larger-capacity aircraft too expensive.
The 757’s utility in this respect is not limited to passenger carriers. A UPS Airlines spokesman explained to AIR International: “They’re the only narrowbody freighters in our fleet, so we match them to the capacity needs on a particular route. It’s very easy to swap tails and adjust capacity up or down on a particular day as necessary.”
Icelandair is another example of the 757’s right-sizing value. This carrier has in recent years expanded from Reykjavík as it seeks to establish its base as an alternative transfer hub between Europe and North America. Its 25 757-200s and two -300s offer range to serve long-haul routes on both continents but do so without the risk of deploying too much capacity.
The 757’s specific mix of midsize capacity, range, extended twin-engine operations clearance and short-field take-off and landing performance is also ideal for aircraft, crew, maintenance and insurance (ACMI) charter specialists.
John Mahon, who flew the aircraft with now-defunct ACMI specialist Astraeus, told AIR International: “It’s just so flexible. We did things with it that other aircraft couldn’t do. Because the 757 has a four-bogie undercarriage, we were able to go into much smaller airports. We took the 757 into some really interesting places.”
For instance, an Astraeus 757 flew equipment and supplies into Haiti in the aftermath of the January 2010 earthquake. The 757 was the only civil aircraft allowed to land there after the quake, Mahon pointed out.
He also recalled: “I got a phone call saying, ‘We need an airplane and crew to go down to South America and fly up to Miami via Aruba’, a small island off the coast of South America in the Dutch Antilles.
Mahon said the 757 “was ideal for the task”. The runway at the island’s Queen Beatrix International Airport is 8,999ft (2,743m) long, but the 757-200 can take off in just 6,800ft (2,070m), enabling it to comfortably operate from Aruba yet also provide the range the tasking required. Delta and American have also operated 757s to the island from Miami.
One of Astraeus’ more unusual 757 charters was to provide aircraft for Iron Maiden’s world tours (lead singer Bruce Dickinson was a qualified commercial pilot with the carrier). Two separate aircraft became the so called ‘Ed Force One’: firstly G-OJIB (c/n 24292, now a freighter with FedEx Express as N938FD) in 2008/2009, and then G-STRX (c/n 25621, now stored as EI-ETR) in 2011.
Some 757s have become luxurious private jets. One currently on the market is the 20-year-old 757-256, N757AG (c/n 29306), described in a brochure listing by vendor Avjet Global Sales as “one of the rare gems in luxury private aviation today”. The jet has 39 seats, up to 21 fully lie-flat beds, a master bedroom, lounges, a guest room, office and a shower. There is LED lighting throughout, audio-visual systems, including large-format TVs and surround sound, wireless internet connectivity and a galley.
Operating the 757 presents a conundrum. The type has useful capabilities and gives carriers a lot of flexibility. It also has another, less obvious benefit: because it has been in service for a long time its capital expenditure (capex) has been absorbed, so it has low ownership costs compared to newer aircraft.
However, older airlines are more expensive to fuel and maintain, and the ‘Seven-Five’ does not compare favourably with newer aircraft. Airbus’ A321LR/XLR, the long-range versions of the A321neo, use 25% less fuel than the 757, the manufacturer claims.
These new midsize jets have bagged hundreds of orders. The French all business class carrier La Compagnie, has already substituted 757-200s for A321LRs while UK ACMI specialist Titan Airways recently announced it will replace its two 757s with A321LRs this summer.
The last of four 757s wet-leased by Aer Lingus from ASL Airlines, EI-CJX (c/n 26160) will be withdrawn by the Irish carrier in May 2020. Three have already left its fleet: EI-LBR (c/n 28167) and EI-LBS (now N726WN, c/n 27623) in late 2019 and EI-LBT (c/n 28170) in January 2020.
The changeover from the 757 is happening even among the big US carriers. Data published by Airfleets shows that by early 2020 United had trimmed its fleet to 72 jets and American to 34. United’s A321XLRs will arrive from 2024 and American is expected to completely phase out the type by 2025/26, having already substituted the type for A321neos on some transcontinental flights.
The decision of when 757s are replaced is down to each individual operator, who must work out the optimal time to phase out their specific aircraft by trading off the upcoming maintenance requirements and costs on their jets against the capital expenditure cost of new aircraft.
With most 757s now more than 20 years old, the market is seemingly moving inexorably towards a new generation, as the A321LR/XLR’s popularity indicates. However, it is a mark of the 757’s usefulness that some operators plan to phase it out slowly.
United will replace its fleet over several years and Delta, which with 127 jets flies the most examples of any single operator, appears to be in no hurry. Wayne Gilbert West, Delta’s chief operating officer and senior executive vice president, told investors in December: “Keep in mind the delivery cycles of our 757s [were] staggered. We’ve retired some already and we’ve got retirement plans, but a large portion of those are out in the more distant horizon.”
Delta previously said it would be interested in Boeing’s proposed New Mid-market Airplane concept, dubbed the 797, but a new midsize Boeing is more distant than ever after new company CEO David Calhoun said the company is going back to the drawing board.
Delta’s West said: “In the meantime, we’ve got options or levers to pull as some [757s] retire… namely the A321 series aircraft.” Delta has ordered 100 A321neos.
Cargo operators will also use 757s for many years to come. FedEx’s phased replacement of the 727 with the 757 was only completed in 2013 and similarly UPS intends to fly its 757s for decades.
A long-term commitment to the 757 is reflected by continued investment in the aircraft. In 2013, APB introduced the Scimitar Blended Winglet (SBW) to the 757, which replaces the Blended Winglet’s aluminium cap with a sharply swept-back tip and adds an aerodynamic trailing-edge ‘wedge’ to the lower part of the winglet.
The SBW reduces fuel burn by an extra 1.1% and by 6% than a 757 without winglets, APB claims. Icelandair and United have retrofitted their 757s with the scimitar tips.
Meanwhile, Collins Aerospace (formerly Rockwell Collins) and Boeing offer a flight deck retrofit for the 757 which replaces six cathode ray tube displays with large-format (15.1in/38.3cm) LCD screens.
UPS Airlines is upgrading its 757s (and its 767s, with which the 757 has a common type rating) with the system. The carrier told AIR International: “The project is driven by the obsolescence of cathode ray tubes. Soon they just won’t be available any longer, so we either had to stockpile CRTs or upgrade. We also expect the LCD displays to be more reliable.”
Several airlines have also updated their 757 cabins. Most of American’s jets now have an all business class cabin with lie-flat seats and Wi-Fi connectivity, both Delta and United have installed new slimline seats on their aircraft, and Icelandair added new seats, LED lighting and Global Eagle Entertainment satcom systems offering gate-to-gate Wi-Fi.
All these investments show that many operators believe the 757 will continue to serve them well for a long time to come, despite the emergence of new midsize aircraft.
As John Mahon put it: “Nothing compares to the 757 in terms of ability. The 757 does things other aeroplanes can’t.”
Trialling new technology
Various 757s have been used as testbeds. The 1990s saw the first 757 used for Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor avionics and sensor integration work and the second production example served as the NASA Airborne Research Integrated Experiments System (ARIES) evaluating hybrid laminar flow control, avionics for the Northrop YF-23 and fly-by-wire control for the 777.
Honeywell uses 757-256, N757HW (c/n 22194), formerly with Eastern as N504EA and Airtours International Airways (later MyTravel Airways) as G-JALC. Aboard this ‘Connected Aircraft’ testbed are the company’s wireless technologies and a pylon aft of the cockpit for airborne engine tests.
In 2015, ex-United 757-233, N757ET (c/n 24627), was part of Boeing’s ecoDemonstrator project testing technologies to improve efficiency; its subsequent dismantling studied new parting-out and recycling methods.
Yet another 757 to become a testbed is ex-TUI 757-236 G-BYAW (c/n 86749). According to Jane’s Defence Weekly, Leonardo will use this aircraft, sourced from 2Excel Aviation, to test avionics, systems and sensors for the Team Tempest future combat aircraft project and systems for the Typhoon and F-35.
A pilot’s view
Captain Ken Hoke is a UPS Airlines 757 and 767 pilot with more than 4,000 hours flying both types. He told AIR International: “The 757 is great fun to fly. The plane is nimble and has a nice, solid feel on the controls. It has the perfect combination of old-school systems and modern automation. When the autopilot is turned off, it’s easy to fly.
“The 757-200PF has a small cockpit compared to passenger variants; the floor plan is optimised for freight. The crew entry door is better described as a hatch, and it’s a bit of a squeeze to get into the pilot seats. But once strapped in, it’s pure Boeing 757.
“In the 1980s, the 757 earned the nickname ‘Atari Ferrari’ because of its then state-of-the-art glass cockpit and excellent performance. It’s a forgiving aircraft with outstanding crosswind landing characteristics that make it a pleasure to fly.
“Initial pilot reaction to the large-format display system [LDS] flight deck upgrade was very positive. Although the classic cockpits are well liked, crew members who previously flew more modern equipment missed the benefits of advanced displays. Those of us raised on older ‘steam gauges’ were excited about the new features available with LDS. As more aircraft are converted, maintaining currency is easier. “For an old-timer like me, the first few flights in an LDS aircraft were a fun challenge. LDS provides more information to the pilots. And it’s all good info. Speed tapes, trend vectors, improved traffic collision and avoidance system [TCAS] guidance, flight path vectors, and more, improve situational awareness. All this new data requires a different visual scan. It takes time and concentration to adapt.
“The Collins LDS is intuitive. After only a few flights, I prefer the LDS cockpit; and our flight crews will soon enjoy the benefits on every flight. I may be a fan of antiques, but I won’t miss the classic Seven-Five instrument panel.”
From ‘Air Force Two’ to Antarctica
Several government and military operators use 757s for strategic airlift and VIP transport. The USAF’s 1st Airlift Squadron of the 89th Airlift Wing at Andrews AFB uses four 757-200s, designated C-32As. Other C-32s are used by the 486th Flight Test Squadron. The Kazakhstan Government and the Saudi royal family also use VIP-configured 757-200s, as did the presidents of Argentina and Mexico 2015 and 2018, respectively.
The Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF)’s No.40 Squadron at Christchurch operates two 757-200Ms, designated 757-2K2s, NZ7571 (c/n 26633, ex-Transavia PH-TKA) and NZ7572 (c/n 26634, ex-PH-TKB). They carry personnel and equipment for operations and deployments and provide VIP transport, aeromedical evacuation and rapid response support. The aircraft have a main-deck cargo door, strengthened floor and cargo loading system to carry large and heavy loads and internal air stairs. Their duties include flying to New Zealand’s Scott Base in Antarctica.