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New-Old Airplanes

Two Older Planes That Airlines Won't Let Fade Away

A Boeing 757 in 1982

Photograph by AP Photo

A Boeing 757 in 1982

Sometimes aerospace engineers just nail it: Size, range, and operating cost all come together in an airplane that fits a market need like a leather glove. Boeing’s (BA) 757 medium-range airplane has that type of cozy feel for the U.S. carriers that fly it to Europe. And Airbus has a similarly well-suited product with its widebody A330, which has won a devoted market among international airlines.

Airbus and Boeing have focused their recent efforts on advanced composite airplanes that are lighter and burn less fuel. But both manufacturers have found a vocal group of airline customers keen to see updated versions of those two classics instead. Exotic technology might be wonderful for future cost savings, but it’s also expensive. Sometimes it’s wiser for an airline to squeeze marginal financial improvements from a plane that is known, liked, and cost-effective.
Airbus A330 in 1992Photograph by Stephane Frances/CorbisAirbus A330 in 1992
Boeing and Airbus, of course, need to weigh the sales potential of their newer products against the design costs—and likely lower profit margins—of older models in need of a tweak. Airbus has decided to proceed with a new-engine version of the A330, Reuters reported on Friday, in a nod to the model’s popularity on trans-Atlantic routes; an announcement of the A330neo could come as soon as the Farnborough Air Show next month. But there is also the risk that updating an old plane could damage sales of its new A350 family. “There is no decision yet,” Airbus spokesman Martin Fendt said in an e-mail.

At Boeing, meanwhile, an update to the venerable 757 could fill the product gap between its largest 737 and the smallest 787 Dreamliner, says Scott Hamilton, an aerospace analyst with Leeham. That gap is large and one reason Boeing has heard calls from customers to launch a 757 replacement. The latest came on Thursday when the president of Kazakhstan-based Air Astana told Bloomberg News that Boeing would “soon” announce a new aircraft with the 757′s profile to fill its product gap.

Boeing stopped building the 757 a decade ago, but it’s hardly a distant memory: Delta (DAL), American (AAL), and United (UAL) all still fly large numbers of 757s, which have become a mainstay on many European routes from the East Coast. (Carriers also love the plane’s cockpit similarities to the larger 767—pilots trained on either airplane can fly both.) Airlines are replacing the plane on domestic routes with new, far more fuel-efficient versions of the Airbus A321 and Boeing’s 737 MAX. But neither of those planes has the range to replace the 757 across the Atlantic. “There is still life left in the younger 757s so there isn’t a burning need” for Boeing to rush a decision, Hamilton wrote on Friday in an e-mail.

Bachman is an associate editor for

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