Back in 2002, Boeing faced the daunting decision to close the Boeing 757 line down. At the time, the United States was feeling the full effects of the air traffic downturn after the September 11th attacks. Airlines weren’t buying new aircraft and smaller airlines like Midway Airlines, Vanguard, and National were failing. Major airlines were retiring whole fleets of aircraft, furloughing employees, and cutting unprofitable routes. Against this backdrop, Boeing made the decision to end production of the Boeing 757.
Boeing bet on the 737 instead
First introduced in 1981, the jet was over 30 years by the time Boeing made its decision. Development of the 737-700NG and -800NG made the 737 a much more efficient fleet. Airlines that used to need a 757 for transcontinental flight could now utilize a ‘baby Boeing’ for the job. The only major upgrade was a stretch -300 version of the jet. Besides the stretch, the jet remained largely the same, mainly because the original design was so powerful and efficient that it was not the company’s largest priority.
Now 15 years later, many Boeing 757s continue to soldier on. They fill a gap in the fleet of most major airlines that other jets, even the 737-MAX and Airbus A320NEO series cant fill. The 757 continue to fly long, thin routes both domestically and internationally. They fly from high, hot fields like Mexico City and Eagle County, Colorado. And they fly secondary international routes like JFK to Manchester, England. Airlines are beginning to ask the question, what’s next? Boeing has already said that they will not restart the 757 line. But they are actively exploring a ‘797’ jet that will fill the gap between the 737-10MAX and the 787-8.
But what if Boeing decided to improve the 757?
The 757 was a robust platform and it still is. While Boeing has definitively said they won’t be upgrading the 757, we know that Boeing’s forthcoming clean-sheet 797 will most likely have many of these features incorporated into their next-gen midsize jet. At Avgeekery, we’re avgeeks. And we love to ask the question, ‘what if’ Boeing decided to upgrade the iconic jet. Here’s our top 5 list of ways we would’ve upgraded the jet.
1.) New, more efficient engines
The Rolls Royce and Pratt & Whitney engines were pretty efficient for an ’80s jet. But 40 years later the engines are no longer state of the art. A scaled up LEAP engine in the 40,000lb thrust range would offer MAX/NEO-like fuel consumption on the larger 757 sized body.
2.) A new, lighter wing
One of the limitations of the 757 is its wing. The original 757 was built to replace the 727, then the champ of operations in challenging environments. By design, the 757 was built to offer superior performance during high, hot conditions and from short runways. The bi-product of this engineering decision is that the wing area is huge. The large wing forces a heavier wing box, heavier structure, and larger stabilizer. Advances in wing design mean that a new composite wing could be lighter, thinner, slightly more swept (enabling slightly faster cruising speeds) and still able to lift similar loads.
3.) Modern Cockpit
The Boeing 757 was one of the first ‘glass’ cockpit airliners. Back in the day, the CRT screens were cutting edge. But 40 years later, the flight deck looks remarkably dated. If Boeing were to upgrade the 757, they would have to decide to either adopt a 787-like cockpit or upgrade the 757 cockpit similar to the way they upgraded the MAX jet. Most likely, Boeing would’ve chosen to upgrade the 757 cockpit with wide-screen LED panels and a simplified overhead panel. This would’ve allowed Boeing to keep a common type rating with earlier versions of the jet.
4.) Simplified maintenance
Even though airlines still fly the 757, they often complain that the 757 fleet is more maintenance intensive than its more modern counterparts. Much of the costs are tied to the engine maintenance. However, the landing gear and hydraulics could use an upgrade. Additionally, the jet is not a full fly-by-wire aircraft. It wouldn’t have been outside of the realm of possibility for Boeing to convert some of the secondary flight controls to FBW like they did with the spoiler system on the 737-MAX.
5.) Updated and upgraded cabin
To use an ’80s term, the 757 cabin is painfully ‘tubular’. The cabin is so long that it feels like you are flying in an endless tube. I remember flying in the back of a 757-300 and thinking that I was actually seeing the front of the fuselage twist differently than my section during turbulence. There have been many improvements since the ’80s. The first would be to add a 737-MAX cabin. Then Boeing would have to find ways to break up the visuals of the cabin so it didn’t seem so long.
Ok, wishful thinking complete.
While Boeing will never ‘upgrade’ the 757, they will mostly likely incorporate many of the 787 features into its clean-sheet middle of the market jet. We can expect a standard 787 cockpit along with next-gen engines, modern cabin, fly-by-wire flight controls, and small wide-body configuration. We can also expect Boeing to heavily utilize carbon composites with their new mid-size jet. We should know more concrete details about this new jet by the end of the year.
We know airlines want a longer-range, midsize jet that can efficiently fly around 200 people on long-transcontinental and secondary international markets. Any 797 needs to be capable of 757-like performance too. Boeing still has time to figure out the best solution. The 797 isn’t expected to enter service until sometime in the middle of the next decade.