The Airplane That Isn’t

Boeing bet the future on a 50 year-old design. Did it lose?

December 16, 2019

I’M DEPRESSED. I’m depressed because the word on the street has it that Boeing will not be moving forward with its so-called “new midsize airplane,” or NMA, also known as the 797. That’s the rumor, at any rate.

If built, the 797 would bridge the range and capacity gap between the narrow-body 737 family and the much larger 787 and 777 families — a slot occupied by the now-geriatric 757 and 767. The concept was formally unveiled at the Paris Air Show two years ago, and the planemaker has been mulling it over ever since. The uncertainty around the project has become a simmering backstory to the ongoing 737 MAX saga.

The two are not unrelated.

Back about fifteen years ago, Boeing had a decision to make. It’s popular 757 was getting long in the tooth. Orders were drying up and the company would need to develop a replacement. This wouldn’t be easy, because the 757 was, and still is, a very special machine. You might call it the most versatile jetliner Boeing has ever built: a medium-capacity, high-performing plane able to turn a profit on both short and longer-haul routes — domestic or international; across the Mississippi or across the North Atlantic. And along the way it meets every operational challenge. Short runway? Stiff headwinds? Full payload? No problem. With 180 passengers, the plane can safely depart from a short runway, climb directly to cruise altitude, and fly clear across the country — or the ocean. Nothing else can do that. And it’s a great-looking plane to boot.

Essentially three options were on the table. The first was to come up with a plane from scratch — a brand-new jetliner of roughly the 757’s size and capabilities. A second, less expensive option would be to equip the existing airframe with new engines, modern avionics and other upgrades — a 757-X, if you will. Option three would be to abandon the 757 template altogether and, instead, turn to the company’s favorite cash-cow, the 737, and somehow push it, squeeze it, force it, into the role of the 757.

Although Boeing hasn’t — at least not yet — officially abandoned the idea of new airplane, it is option three, if only by default, that seems to have won. Production of the 757 ceased for good in 2004, and the 737 remains Boeing’s only non-widebdoy replacement option. Need a 180-ish seater? If you’re buying from Boeing, it’s a 737 or nothing: the -800, the -900, or the beleaguered MAX.

None of these, however, can do what the 757 does. The 737’s range allows U.S. coast-to-coast and limited transatlantic pairings, but anything further is out of the question. And what it can do, it doesn’t do particularly well. On longer routes it’s often payload and/or altitude restricted, and for a jet of its size it uses huge amounts of runway with startlingly high takeoff and landing speeds.

I was jammed into the cockpit jumpseat — more of a jump-bench, actually — on an American Airlines 737-800 not long ago, flying from Los Angeles to Boston. Man, if we didn’t need every foot of LAX’s runway 25R, at last getting off the ground at a nearly supersonic 165 knots. What would it be like on the westbound leg, I wondered — a longer flight, from a shorter runway, in the face of winter headwinds?


By contrast, I recently piloted a 757 from Boston to San Francisco. At flaps 20, we lifted off at a docile 130 knots from Logan’s stubby, 7000-foot runway 09, with nearly half the runway still remaining! With every seat full and seven hours’ worth of fuel, we climbed directly to 36,000 feet and flew all the way to California. That’s performance. A 737 cannot come close to that.

In the 737, Boeing took what essentially was a regional jet — the original 737-100 first flew in 1967, and was intended to carry a hundred or so passengers on flights of around 400 miles — and has pushed, pushed, and pushed the plane into roles it was never intended for. Bigger and bigger engines, fancier avionics, MCAS. Five decades and ten variants later, the MAX is a monsterized hybrid of a thing — a plane that wants, and needs to be something that it’s not: all muscle and power and advanced technology, jammed into the framework of a fifty year-old design.

From the other side of the Atlantic, meanwhile, the Airbus line features a similar gap. The A310 died away a long time ago, and size-wise there’s nothing between the A320 family and the long-haul A330.

Or is there? The biggest Airbus narrow-body is the A321 — a stretched-out version of the basic A320. Two upcoming variants, the A321LR (long range), and the A321XLR (extra long-range), are about to hit the market. With two-class seating for around 200 passengers and a range of almost 5,000 nautical miles, these aircraft have enormous potential. JetBlue is among airlines planning to use the LR on routes across the pond, serving Western Europe from New York and Boston.

Whether you’re an airline CEO, a pilot, or a passenger, there’s a lot to like about the A320 family generally, certainly when matched against the 737. It requires less runway, for one, and uses tamer takeoff and landing speeds. On the inside it’s quieter and more spacious, A few weeks ago I rode aboard a 737 for the first time in a while. I normally find myself on an A320 or A321, and I was startled at how uncomfortable the 737 was in comparison. I had a window seat about a third of the way down, and the narrower cross-section meant my shoulder was pressed into the sidewall the entire time, forcing me to sit at an angle. And the noise. The 737 is a loud airplane. On a two, three, or four-hour trip such comfort levels are acceptable. But six? How about a seven-hour nonstop from Gatwick or Shannon?

And if you think it’s noisy in the cabin, you should hear the cockpit, where the sound of the onrushing air must push a hundred decibels. Loud and tight, with barely enough room for the crew’s hand luggage. It’s interesting how both the A320 and the 737 families have roughly the same exterior dimensions, yet somehow the A320’s cockpit is three times roomier and five times quieter. How can that be? Well, look closely at the nose section of the 737. Do you recognize that? The old-fashioned flight deck windows, the shapes of the radome and fuselage? It’s the 707. Unchanged in over sixty years.

Take a MAX and put it next to an old 737-100 from the late sixties. It’s at once the same and yet completely different. You can virtually see the airplane straining, stretching, reaching — trying so hard to become something else. And therein is the problem. Boeing desires the commonality, the simpler training footprint and all the good things that the 737 family offers. But it also wants a plane that can take 200 people across the ocean. What it’s finding out is that perhaps, after all, they cannot be the same thing. You can only reinvent so many times.

The Boeing 757.     Photo by Alberto Riva.

Indeed the A321LR will be the closest thing out there to a 757. Comfort-wise it’ll be equal, if not superior, with almost the range, almost the capacity, and almost the muscle. Sure, those are a lot of important almosts. Eventually, however, the last 757 will be put to pasture, and when that happens, the lack of a 797 all but assures the A321’s domination of the mid-market niche.

Until that day, U.S. carriers continue holding on to their 757s. Hundreds remain in service on trunk routes and transcons. United and Delta have flown 757s from their East Coast gateways on eight-hour services to Western Europe, Scandinavia, even Africa. Of course, you’ll also see it on 60-minute segments into Kansas City, Cleveland, Tucson and Tampa. Nothing can match it across such a wide swath of markets, with little or no concerns as to weather, payload or runway length.

As to its relunctance in committing to the 797, Boeing says that the sales potential for such a plane, estimated at anywhere from three-hundred to a thousand examples, is possibly too limited. As a point of comparison, the company claims that it won’t break even on its 787 program until at least 1,500 aircraft have been delivered. If true, that’s a sad testament to how expensive it has become to develop new aircraft. If a thousand airplanes can’t justify a new line, what can?

Still, it seems that filling such a niche should be well within the technical expertise, and certainly the imagination, of the world’s largest and most prolific plane-maker. Wouldn’t the 797 borrow much of the 787’s architecture, and thus be cheaper to produce? And isn’t this the same company that, fifty years ago, created the 747, an airplane more than double the size of any existing plane, taking it from a napkin drawing to an actual, in-the-air prototype in less than two years! Forgive me for looking at this romantically, but what happened to that sprit and vision?

And if Boeing does press ahead with the 797, will they build the right plane? Preliminary renderings of the NMA from 2017 show us a jetliner seating between 220 and 270 passengers, with a composite fuselage and wings, and a range of around 5,000 nautical miles. Is it just me, or is this much too big? I like the twin-aisle idea; two aisles make for faster boarding and deplaning, and give the cabin a roomier feel overall. But, otherwise, how is this not just a 787 with a shorter range? A 757 replacement should be a plane that tops out at around 220 passengers, not one that starts there.


“It strikes me that the airplane Boeing ought to be putting out there is one that already exists, at least as a template,” I wrote on my website about a year ago. I was talking about the 767, Boeing’s venerable quasi-widebody that dates to the early 1980s. Although a passenger version hasn’t been ordered in years, the jet remains in production as a freighter and as a military midair refueler. Why not upgrade it, I asked in my article, with new engines, a new cockpit, and overhauled internal systems? Is that not a better option — especially considering the limited market that Boeing sees — than spending billions on an all-new airframe? “Call it the 767-X,” I wrote.

Well, in October of 2019 Boeing released a proposal for a 767 derivative called, guess what, the 767-X.

However, the 767 I had in mind as a baseline was the original -200. The -200, which debuted in 1982, is a long-since obsolete aircraft that, by today’s standards, would be laughably uneconomical. In terms of size, range, and capacity, however, it’d be just about perfect. Imagine a modernized, re-engined version delivering twin-aisle comfort for 180-200 people, containerized luggage and cargo, and all the range and unbeatable brawn of the 757. What’s not to like?

Boeing, though, says the -X would build not on the platform of the -200, but on that of the -400, and would be aimed at the cargo market. The -400, which sold very poorly, has seats for around 250 people. Again this is too big. In any case, Boeing eyes the 767-X chiefly as a freighter, not a passenger carrier.

Which leaves us… where?

While Boeing makes up its mind, the 737 MAX drama continues at center stage. And here’s the part we hate to ask but need to: why did the MAX need to exist in the first place?

What if, back in 2004, Boeing had gone ahead with the 797 in lieu of yet bigger and heavier 737s? And were the MAX tragedies, on some deep-down level, an inevitable result of Boeing’s decades-long obsession with its 737 — its determination to keep the production line going, variant after variant, seemingly forever? Where in the blame pie does poor corporate strategy and stubborness fall?

There’s a place for the 737 and always will be. I just don’t know if that place is as far and wide as Boeing would like it to be. And although you won’t see it any reports, but what happened in Africa and Indonesia is, maybe, fate’s way of telling Boeing that the time has come to move on.

This article appeared originally on The Points Guy website and is being used with permission.

 

 

 

 

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Ode to the 767

MY FONDNESS for the 757, Boeing’s venerable, inimitable twin-jet, is well documented. But hey, how about a shout-out for its slightly bigger sibling, the 767?

The 767 is a twin-aisle, longish-haul airliner that first flew in 1981. With a seven abreast, 2-3-2 layout in economy, it’s a quasi-widebody with seats for around 210 passengers, depending on configuration. It was developed in conjunction with the single-aisle 757. Despite an obvious size difference, the planes have similar internal systems and virtually identical cockpits, allowing pilots to fly both models.

I hate saying it, but both jets are by most measures obsolete. They’re a rare sight elsewhere in the world, where carriers long ago sent them to pasture. But here in the U.S. it’s another story. The 757 and 767 fleets at the big three — American, United, and Delta — still number in the hundreds. The intensive maintenance overhauls and cabin refurbishments required to keep them in the game aren’t cheap, but neither is replacing them outright. Plus the damn things are so remarkably versatile. Short-haul or long-haul, domestic or international, these machines can turn a profit across the whole spectrum of stage lengths and markets. In the case of the 757, as I talked about before, there simply isn’t a newer plane that can match its combination of range, capacity, and efficiency.

I haven’t updated my logbook since who knows when, but I’ve got roughly the same number of hours split between the two models. I’ve been flying them for eleven years now on routes across five continents. While they’re both fun to fly — and my earlier raves for the 757 notwithstanding — if given the choice I will always pick the “seven six” over its smaller sister. The 767s at my carrier are, on average, newer than the 757s, which means the cockpits are cleaner (the filthiness of airliner cockpits is a subject for another time). They’re also roomier and, due to a differently designed recirculation fan, much quieter. (Funny how it’s the ergonomics and creature comforts that mean so much. You probably expected me to say something about speed or engine thrust.) Plus the plane is, well, bigger, and there’s that pilot ego thing. Flying in the U.S. I get to say, “heavy” after our radio call sign, which brings out the little kid in me.

Curiously, at almost twice the size, it’s the 767 that’s lighter and more twitchy on the controls. This is due mostly to a pair of inboard ailerons, which the 757 does not have, and which make the jet surprisingly sensitive on its roll axis (i.e. turns). It’s also quite light on the pitch axis (nose up and down). The 757 is recalcitrant and heavy, particularly on takeoff, requiring a good flex of the biceps to get the nose up. The 767, even at 400,000 pounds, can be flown with two fingers.

With respect to lift and power, both jets are pretty damn muscular. In my previous story I boasted about the 757’s fantastic performance on short runways. Well, the 767 can do it too. And then some…

Cockpit of a Boeing 767.

Departure

We’re at Boston-Logan. We’ve just called for push when the guy on clearance delivery asks if we can take runway 22R. The longer, parallel runway is closed for some reason. “Standby a second,” I tell him.

I look at the chart. “That’s only 7800 feet!” But we send for the data and it all looks fine.

“Yeah, we can do that.”

We’d already set up and briefed for runway 22L. So things get very busy for a few minutes. We have to review the new thrust and flap settings, input the revised takeoff data into the FMS, plus reload the departure procedure, reviewing all the associated turns and climbs and speed restrictions, which are different now. The taxi route, too, has changed and needs to be briefed. When that’s all done, we re-run the checklists. Then it’s time to start the engines and get moving. We’re blocking the alleyway and two inbound jets are waiting; the apron controllers are antsy for us to roll. Believe it or not it’s these first few minutes off the gate, long before you’re in the air, that are some of the busiest and most work-intensive minutes of a flight.

The short runway means a flaps 20 takeoff, which is somewhat unusual. Even so, the numbers say we can use reduced thrust all the way down to an assumed temperature of 45 degrees Celsius. That’s some monster performance on a plane this heavy, with two-hundred people and eight hours of fuel.

I love flaps 20, because the V-speeds are so tame and you’re off the ground in under twenty seconds. V1 today is a measly 144 knots — about twenty less than it’d be at the standard flaps 5. This will give us low (safer) tire speeds and a nice, gentlemanly rotation with tons of runway remaining.

It’s my turn at the controls, and we are in the air by the time we’re abeam the old TWA gates at terminal C. I see the control tower to my right, zipping past out of the corner of my eye, and the old 16th floor observation deck where as a young teenager I spent so many afternoons.

How fun is this? We didn’t use even two-thirds of that runway, and we’re climbing at four thousand feet a minute! No way could a 737 have done this. They’d be skimming into the harbor at 170 knots.

Also it’s Christmas, and I’m wearing one of the Santa hats that Ray, our relief pilot tonight, brought along for everyone.

 

Arrival

It’s just after dawn and the visibility at Charles de Gaulle is fluctuating between a thousand and fifteen-hundred meters. Fog, drizzle — typical Paris morning. That’s a little tight, but plenty good for a Category 1 ILS.

Everything is set up: the arrival, the transition, the approach and the checklists. We’ve briefed the ILS right down to the type of approach lights to expect, and gone over the expected taxi route to the gate — CDG’s spaghetti snarl of taxiways being one of the most daunting in Europe, requiring you to flip back and forth between four different charts and diagrams. Paris won’t assign you a runway until fairly late in the descent, so there’s a lot of talking and button-pushing in the last fifteen or so minutes of the flight.

We’re eight or so miles out on a long final to 26R. Approach control gives us a speed of 170 knots and hands us off to de Gaulle tower.

“Bonjour,” says the tower controller, asking us to slow to 160 knots. We’re following an Etihad A380, he tells us. We can see him on the TCAS screen. Even as we decelerate it looks like the distance between us is shrinking. It’s busy this time of the morning, and controllers are doing their best to get everyone in. Etihad and us are just two of several jets lined up for the runway. The winds, I notice, have dropped about 25 knots in the last thousand feet of altitude. Shifts like that can mess with the spacing.

“Reduce to minimum speed, please,” says the tower. That means about 150 knots for us, with everything out. The flaps are at 25, the gear is down and the landing checklist is complete.

That’s pretty slow. But the A380, just over the numbers now, is apparently slower.

“Go around,” says the tower. Yup, we had a feeling this might happen.

With my left thumb I activate the TOGA switches attached to the thrust levers. The levers slide forward and the engines roar — that grinding, deep-throated lion’s roar that only high-bypass turbofans can make. I loved that noise when I was a kid, and I love it now, making it happen. The jet immediately pitches up to the command bars; the acceleration and climb are instant. The power and acceleration, kicking up through the seat of your pants, is more than just encouraging — it’s something fierce.

“Go around engaged,” says the captain.

“Flaps 20,” I say.

“Positive rate,” he says.

“Gear up.”

There’s so much thrust that the climb feels almost effortless, as if the plane is floating, levitating upwards. Wow, I’m thinking. Has this thing got some juice.

Back in the cabin, half the passengers at this point are probably whispering goodbyes to their loved ones. Go-arounds have a way of scaring the bejeezus out of people. They’re abrupt, loud, and disorienting: the sudden change of pitch, the power increasing, the gear clunk-clunking back into the wells, and so forth. “We were coming down, and then all of a sudden it was up, up up!” It’s not the most sensory-friendly thing for customers, I admit. But for an airplane, that transition from descent to climb is perfectly natural. For the crew, it’s a busy maneuver, but a routine one just the same. If anything, let all that racket assure you that the pilots and their plane are doing exactly what they need to.

“When we level at three,” I say, “Let’s do 200 knots and flaps 5.”

The missed approach altitude is only 3,000 feet. So now, only a minute or so into the climb, the thrust levers come hauling back. The engines wind down nearly to idle and the nose falls back to the horizon. Again this is all perfectly natural, but likely a bit alarming to the vacationers back there.

I’ve got my eye on the airspeed, because I don’t want to overspeed the flaps or slats as they transition to the 5 setting. But the jet handles the level-off just fine — as smoothly and safely as you could hope for.

Then it’s another big series of turns, descents, speed adjustments and checklists as ATC brings us around. I’m flying while the captain is talking to the controllers, eyeing the fuel gauges and setting up the FMS again. Ray, in the jumpseat between us, makes a PA and talks to the flight attendants. I can’t hear what he’s saying, but hopefully he’s not too cavalier with the microphone; this is one of those instances where passengers go home with some hair-raising story about a “near-miss.” We were nowhere remotely close to colliding with that A380, but phrases like “a little too close to another plane” play to people’s fears.

I’m just hoping they don’t switch runways on us, because that would require loading the new approach, verifying all the points and altitudes, and another briefing.

Fortunately they keep us on 26R.

So, what do you think the odds are for two go-arounds? Don’t laugh, it’s actually happened to me. Once about eight years ago, in a 757 at La Guardia, and another time in 1992, in a Beech 99 at Hyannis.

No, not today. This time we’re first in line for the runway, and the rest is all just kinda boring.

 

The 767 has existed in three basic variants. The original, short-bodied -200 model is all but extinct, while the -400 was a sort of orphan project that sold only a few dozen examples. The -300, particularly the -300ER (extended range), is the one you see most commonly today. In fact this plane remains in production. It’s been years since a passenger model was sold, but Boeing continues to roll out brand new 767-300 freighters, FedEx being the biggest customer. These have a redesigned, 777-style cockpit. A military tanker, called the KC-46, is also based on this airframe.

 

Cockpit photo by the author.
767 photo by John McArthur/Unsplash

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