Finding the perfect replacement for an aircraft within the aviation industry is by no means an easy task. While alternative replacements may be provided, they never align perfectly with the wants and desires.
Major US-based carrier, United Airlines is going through something similar now with their iconic yet ageing Boeing 757s.
The Importance Of The Boeing 757
The importance of the Boeing 757 within the United Airlines fleet in 2023 is greater than that of the present. There are still 34 757 -200s in service at United with 6 in storage, meaning 40 remain listed to the airline’s name.
Support for the 757 series is backed up with a further 21 757-300s, the higher capacity variant of the series. As such, with over 60 757ss to its name still, in 2023, it is one of the largest operators of the type alongside Delta. Therefore, the type plays a very integral role in its day-to-day flying.
Replacing The Boeing 757, A Challenge
Replacing it makes serious question marks arise. How is United Airlines planning on making that all-important decision to phase the type out? A decision that inevitably has to happen as these planes only get older.
While some decisions have been made already, these have been outlined as far from ideal by key executives. Perhaps the U.S. carrier would’ve changed its order book had manufacturers made other decisions, too.
In Comes The Airbus A321XLR
Many years ago, the airline placed an order for the Airbus A321XLR, which indicated it would begin looking towards phasing out aircraft with the upcoming arrival of these new jets while also facilitating future growth.
The XLR variant from Airbus is slated for a 2024 entry into service. Thanks to this acquisition, the 757 was listed among types that would partially be removed.
United said acquiring such a plane would strengthen its operations by making them more efficient, while the XLR capabilities would open up new possibilities. It highlights the development of technology over multiple decades.
However, even with this commitment, there was much hesitation around whether it would adequately replace the 757.
United has, and remains, a massive advocate for Boeing’s potential NMA. A proposed aircraft has seemingly been pushed to the side by the American plane maker in favour of waiting for better technology.
Therefore, switching to Airbus was a big decision in this market, maybe one they had no choice but to do. Still, it highlighted a realisation that Boeing would likely not be moving ahead with an option.
As a significant U.S. airline, there’s frankly only so long the company could go before a decision would be required of them. This comes as the carrier needs to secure delivery slots among more.
United Airlines And The 737 MAX
Away from the XLR and back to Boeing, the 737 MAX is also set to play a fundamental role in Boeing’s future fleet across multiple variants.
One variant yet to fly with customers, let alone with United Airlines, is the 737-10, which is the largest and has the highest capacity in the series. Talks over a premium configuration for these 737-10 would mean it could eventually replace the 757-200s on transcontinental routes.
Alongside the potential to grow to other destinations, the XLRs are being focused on European operations.
The 757-300s, though, can seat 234 passengers, which is higher than the 757-200 in a narrowbody configuration. This is a workhorse and a pocket rocket, making it hard to replace to a certain extent, even with the 737-10 and the A321XLRs.
Struggling To Replace The 757-300
The 757-300 is very much a grey area. The company has yet to find the perfect way to replace this variant. Regardless of offers and commitments of aircraft in place, including those mammoth ones for, say, the Boeing 787 series, they’ll always struggle to replace the 757s in an ideal manner.
Why? Well, according to United Airlines, it’s simply because of the lack of NMA, which is the proposed middle-of-the-market airliner that was heavily rumoured and discussed to come from Boeing during the late 2010s.
It would slot into, you guessed it, the middle of the market, compete alongside some of the newly launched A321 variants and be the perfect fixed replacement to the iconic 757 while helping airlines phase out 767s.
Ultimately, it amassed a lot of interest, and companies such as the Air Lease Corporation expressed their intent to order hundreds if Boeing went ahead and made it.
Slowly but surely, though, with no sign of the aircraft, airlines stopped waiting and went with any possible alternative, which maybe wasn’t the best replacement but was the only one on the market for them.
The End Of The Proposed Boeing NMA
The final nail in the coffin to the Boeing NMA story came last year, when discussions ceased, with comments from critical executives saying that they would put such a plane on the back burner.
Instead, favouring returning to the drawing board at some time in the early 2030s, when the belief is that technology for aircraft will have changed substantially, making the jump to the new clean sheet worth it.
There are a couple of issues, but there are also some great opportunities. Some believe it’s a risk worth taking, and others think Boeing had no choice as they missed the boat for this middle-of-the-market airliner.
Either way, with no NMA for the moment, some airlines, such as United, are left with what was described by reputable FlightGlobal as an imperfect fleet. No matter their destination, it will never be what they truly want.
Delta Facing A Similar Problem
United are alone. Per sources close to Delta, they’re struggling with the proposition that there won’t be a genuine 757 replacement from Boeing.
While they have orders placed for the MAX and will extensively fly A321neo variants, they don’t believe these planes are adequate replacements for the 757. Yes, they’ll do, but they’re not truly what they want.
The current aircraft or ones that are yet to enter service on offer, according to Delta, don’t have the same capabilities as the 757s and, therefore, will never be the perfect viable option.
However, with no aircraft coming from Boeing, they’ve got to find ways to adapt, find solutions, and move ahead. For some, that is the 737 -10. For others, it’s the A321neo, and for some, it’s the 787 Dreamliner.