The Airplane That Isn’t

The Boeing 737 MAX

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.

The first Boeing’s 757, circa 1982.

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.

While we’re at it, 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.

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.

Eastern Airlines was the first 757 operator.

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 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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25 Responses to “The Airplane That Isn’t”
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  1. Richard Debosek says:

    Enjoyed your article on the 757 vs. the 737. I too love the 757 over the 737 and A320’s. I will add another 757 plus… it is the main landing gear of two 4 wheel bogeys vs. the two wheel mains of the 737 and A320 families. Those extra 4 wheels increase the 757’s safety. The 757 can stop quicker and they provide extra protection from blowouts. Keep up your great work.

  2. acpleno says:

    All 737 operators (i.e. many more then just WN) steadfastly prop up the ridiculous 1950’s 737 cockpit design and automation philosophy, in order to minimize training costs. It is beyond criminal that the FAA and other regulators have allowed the 737 to trail so astonishingly behind modernity. As more and more minimally-trained pilots enter the ranks, the safety record of the 737NG/Max will continue to fall further and further behind the A320 and B777 and their successors. Airplanes that have come into being since the A320, with true contemporary and wholistic alerting and automation philosophy, coupled with remarkable and affordable computational power, are by definiton significantly safer platforms than the bolt-on-piecemeal situation the 737 finds itself in. Unfortunately the recent surge in 737Max orders indicates the regulators and operators will continue to trade lives in exchange for not ever having to “train” pilots how to fly a modern airplane.

  3. schmitt trigger says:

    My understanding is that the 737’s largest customer, Southwest, has steadfastly opposed anything which wouldn’t be 100% compatible with its existing fleet.

    If my understanding is incorrect, I welcome the correction,

  4. Paul Houle says:

    “There’s a place for the 737” is true, but “… and always will be” isn’t.

    There will be a day when Boeing won’t be able to sell the 737. It could be competition: the Chinese will subsidize the C919 as much as they need to to make it successful in China, Africa, and developing Asia. The C919 will be a worse plane when it first comes out, but it is based on a better foundation and someday will be a better plane than the 737. Like the C919, the A320 series has legs, but the the MAX will be the last 737.

    Boeing doesn’t have a real business plan unless they have a post-737 plan. Southwest Airlines doesn’t have a business plan until it has a post-737 plan. Nothing lasts forever.

    My biggest fear is that Boeing’s core competence is corruption and that they’ll take advantage of the Coronavirus to get a bailout that never ends. It will protect jobs in the beginning, but the story of the US steel industry shows that protecting a company that refuses to keep up with the technology of competitors ends in tears.

    Already in the last 20 years we have seen Canada and Brazil pull ahead of the EU and USA to develop new planes like the E195 and A220. You won’t believe it until you fly it, but both new planes are smaller than the 737 on the outside but feel bigger on the inside. If the 737 gets squeezed by that class of plane on one side and small widebodies, wouldn’t that be for the best?

  5. LB says:

    As a company Boeing is broken. Their previous CEO pushed profits over all else. Of course it makes sense to “modernize” the 757 and cease development of the 737. Had he selected that route, Boeing would have a plane in each class today.

  6. When bean counters manage an aerospace company, you get the 737 MAX and the CST-100 Starloser (sorry, Starliner).

    When bean counters manage a pharma company, you get Vioxx.

    When bean counters manage a car company, you get the Chrysler K-car.

    When bean counters manage a consultancy, you get Arthur Andersen, aka the Royal House of Fraud (now Accenture, or Ass-Venture as it is better known).

    When bean counters manage a space agency, you get a kludge “Shuttle” instead of a spaceplane atop a Saturn first stage, like it should have been, and 14 dead astronauts.

    When bean counters manage armed forces, you get the M2 Bradley and the “multi-role” kludges named F-4, F-111 and F-35

    Shakespeare got it wrong in “Henry VI”. First thing to do is kill all the accountants.

  7. James Creighton says:

    It’s all about profits. It’s not about airplanes anymore.

  8. Robert C says:

    Boeing started chasing ‘easy money’, and sticking more gizmos on the 737 was easier than doing the ‘hard work’ of finding out if it would even work. After finding out that it had ‘issues’, Boeing ‘fixed’ it as quickly and cheaply as they could. They knew that they were losing money to Airbus, and ‘fixing’ a serious problem with a hot mess of patches and trying to play like everything is just fine led to the deaths of those people.

    Murder by profit?

    Boeing management needs to go. Sooner the better…

  9. carl ziggy says:

    Just saw this article, we rank and file workers at the airlines have always scratched our heads at the demise of the 757. While the 737 is a great workhorse and backbone of many fleets, trying to make it a 757 doesn’t seem to be working too well. I think big B would still be ahead, if they retooled and did some ‘tweaking’ to the 757. It could be a A321 killer.

  10. J R in WV says:

    No technical corporation needs a Board of Directors made up of financial experts. Boeing’s board should be composed of engineers, systems experts, materials scientists, etc. Not MBAs, not bankers, not financiers.

    When bean counters can manage a technology company, that’s when you get financial decisions directing the development of technology towards money saving, rather than towards excellence in design and development of the technology.

    This is the same thing that led NASA to decide to conduct launches of the Space Shuttle despite external conditions that made a safe launch and recovery of the Shuttle crew impossible. There too, the MBA oriented managers of NASA should be serving long jail sentences for improper technical decision making.

    Boeing decision makers should be serving time for at least voluntary manslaughter in the deaths of 350 odd passengers. NASA decision makers for a lower number of dead crew-members, but just as serious a set of crimes.

  11. Alan Dahl says:

    We are probably past the time that this would be practical but it’s a shame that Boeing didn’t do something to the 757 like Douglas did with the DC-8 when they developed the Super 70 series by converting the Super 60 series to CFM engines. That reengining kept the type in service for nearly 4 more decades. But at this point most 757 airframes probably have too much time on them to make such a conversion practical.

  12. Simon says:

    I agree with you, Patrick. Terrible idea to simply chug along with the 737 and neglect all the market left before you reach the 787.

    I always liked the 757. I like the Dreamliner. But overall Airbus these days just has a more convincing lineup. And I notice how I more and more prefer their aircraft — just witness the A350-1000 Qantas will get for Project Sunrise. Just when you thought it was next to impossible to beat the Triple 7’s success. I still would have liked to see an NMA from Boeing – the worst that can happen to the market is monopoly. For the NMA I imagined something like a small A300. Twin aisle with max 200 pax, support for containers in the hold. Boeing blew it. Next we’ll hear will be suspension of MAX production. Ugh.

  13. Marc says:

    I read an article about wake turbulence recently (I don’t remember where, unfortunately) that specifically called out the 757 as leaving the longest, most energetic wake vortex of any airliner – including the 747 and A380. I wonder whether that, and the resulting longer landing-interval requirements, might have been a factor in Boeing’s decision to kill off the 757?

    I know – given how little attention Boeing management seem to give to the safety of their own planes, it seems unlikely that they’d care much about the safety of _other_ planes. But it still made me wonder.

  14. Andrea G says:

    Looks like Boeing will start feeling the effects of not developing a replacement. News is out that United placed an order for 50 A321XLRs to replace their 757s.

    • Patrick says:

      And others will follow. They’ll have no choice because the A321XLR is the only plane that (barely) fits this niche. I can’t overemphasize how foolish Boeing is by not building the 797. They claim to see a market for only 400 planes, which is utter rubbish. Watch Airbus sell twice that number of XLRs.


    We discussed this before, I was a FA for EA many years ago. The worst thing Boeing ever did was discontinue the B-757-200, the only model. No one would of noticed, except you, if they produced the B-737 when they ran out of series, as the B-757-300, 757-400, 757-500, etc. Maybe Boeing should do that now that the B-737 name is tarnished. You got pull, suggest it. Regards, Vinnie

  16. Malcolm Schoen MD says:

    Terrific article on the 737/757.

    Flew in a reconfigured (84 business class seats) 757 as a charter on an “around the world by private jet” 3 years ago and it was comfortable, able to get us fairly long distances (Samoa to Tahiti, Agra to Tanzania, Easter Island to Samoa), and (seemingly) beloved by the crew (Thomson, I guess now defunct).

  17. Gail says:

    That was an excellent article, Patrick. Wish Boeing would listen to you. Though I have a question about the 757, which I found to be terribly uncomfortable flying UAL EWR/GLA a couple of years ago, in coach. The cabin felt really tight, and It seemed the attendants could barely even get the cart down the aisle, constantly saying ‘excuse me’, as they made their way front front to back. Given what you say, I have a newfound respect for its capabilities and safety. Am wondering if the passenger discomfort primarily relates to the UAL’s interior configuration, since the 757 cockpit sounds downright roomy for the flight crew. Any thoughts would be appreciated! Thank you. Gail

    • WildaBeast says:

      As I understand, the width of the 757’s cabin is exactly the same as the 737’s cabin, which is the same width as the 727, which is the same width as the 707. Supposedly there are some structural members common to all Boeing narrowbodies dating from the 707 that Boeing doesn’t want to redesign, which dictates the width of the width of the fuselage. This makes aisles in those planes narrower than Airbus’s A320 family, which have a slightly wider fuselage. I’m guessing that’s the reason for your observation about the flight attendants and the drink cart.

  18. Tom says:

    I write from the perspective of a retired 40yrs. airline pilot My career started on “Connies” and ended on the 747. Boeing, Douglas, Lockheed, Saab and Airbus were aircraft of my commercial pilot career.
    Up until the “Max” debacle I was proud of flying Boeing products. I was always leery of the “Two thousand and one” operating systems on Airbus! (“sorry Dave, I can’t let you do that”) Confident that while flying a Boeing I, the pilot always had an override and could take control over the automation. Boeing denied the crew that option with the “Max” and in the name of $$$, and arrogantly failed inform them!
    The time for a new 737 replacement as well as a 757 replacement has passed!
    The 747 went from concept to revenue flights was 3-4 yrs. and eventually was profitable. The so-called ‘NMA’ series should have already been selling! It’s time to put the 1966 series 737 out to pasture with the current run!
    I hope to see a new series of Boeing commercial aircraft flying in the next few years and with those new planes regain the leadership in worldwide commercial aviation!

  19. Russ C. says:

    I agree that the 757 is a beautiful plane and don’t understand why they did not continue its production over (or in addition to) the 737. I have flown the 757 across the atlantic as well as within the US and this versatility makes it seem like a no-brainer to continue producing. One issue that I have never seen discussed is why it would have been so hard to increase the height of the 737 via a slight extension of the landing gear rather than first flattening the engine nacelles and then, with the MAX, moving the engines forward and up to compensate for the low fuselage.

  20. Michael G Kennedy says:

    Boeing traded a lifetime reputation for safe reliable airplanes for quick short-term profits. The whole board of directors should be marched straight into prison for the deaths of the 737 passengers and crews. Instead, they’ll be bailing out with their golden parachutes leaving what’s left of the non-union rank and file to pick up the pieces. I used to say “if it ain’t a Boeing, I ain’t going.” Now it’s “I’ll wait for the Airbus or the Embraer.” Disgusting.

  21. James Wattengel says:

    The Airplane company that isn’t

    When Boeing moved it’s headquarters to Chicago in 2001 it ceased to be an airplane / aerospace company ….

    One more screw-up after the on going 737 fiasco and Boeing will be history. Your article doesn’t give me much confidence that they have a clue or if they do they may not have enough time.

    On the aerospace side they are playing catch-up with other more creative and aggressive companies.

    MBA’s, bankers and bean counters may be necessary but they are not the essence of any company.

  22. Bruce says:

    That was a great article. Thank you.

    I agree completely with your recent observations on a 737. I went in a few recently – also for the first time in a while. My short-haul flights tend to be on A320-family planes. And, like you, I was quite taken aback. While the dimensions are supposed to be similar, the 737 feels a lot smaller. The windows are too low, and the wall begins to curve inwards really quite low down. As a person of fatness, I found it cramped in a way that the A320 – and even the MD-80/90/717 – just isn’t.

    I’ve got another question. You talk about the need for a 767/A300 type of aircraft – a pseudo-widebody with twin aisles that’s a fair bit smaller than an A330/787-8 And neither Boeing nor Airbus seem to be going down that road.

    But CRAIC is, with the CR929. It’s still a little bit big – I think it starts at 250 seats according to Wikipedia. But people I’ve spoken to at COMAC say they see it as a replacement for the 767 rather than as a rival to the A330/787.

    Do you know much about the CR929? Do you think this demonstrates that there is indeed a market for such a plane? And might that market be restricted to China and Russia, or could this be a global thing? You mention the Shannon transatlantic routes, and obviously a plane called the CRAIC is going to struggle to be taken seriously at Irish airports. But is that (and no doubt American trade restrictions) going to be all that holds it back?

  23. chandelle says:

    Wonderfully written as ever, mate. The 757 has long been a favorite of mine for its looks; it has a certain something about it that other aircraft lack, the majesty of the 747 excepted.

    While I agree about the noise inside a 737, this is something that’s very closely linked to where you sit. Two to three rows fore of the engines makes for the most silent, I’ve found. The 787 and A380 would be the joint winners when it comes to the least noisy interiors. That said, I’ve not yet been on the A35x.