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How Airbus A321 finally killed Boeing 757

Dubbed as the Pocket Rocket due to its insane thrust-to-weight ratio or the Flying Pencil due to its length, the Boeing 757 had a very up-and-down story. Despite Boeing canceling its production in 2005, the airplane remained popular as airlines seemingly rediscovered its unique capabilities. However,  Airbus went after the 757 in order to secure its own position as the true middle-market narrow-body with the A321. And it finally did it in October 2020.

What was the Boeing 757, though? Was it just that: an aircraft with an unusually high thrust-to-weight ratio, capable of operating out of airports with shorter runways or those that were more affected by either cold or hot weather?

Boeing’s double wild bet

There is no doubt that the Boeing 757 was a one-of-a-kind aircraft at the start of its production run. On January 1, 1983, Eastern Air Lines introduced it into commercial service. A few months prior, in September 1982, the Boeing 767 entered service – the two aircraft, despite being single and twin-aisle, respectively, shared the same type rating upon entry. Boeing had done what Airbus always aimed to do, a family of different sized aircraft with pilots and other crew being able to transition between them easily.

“The 757 and the 767 were developed concurrently, so both shared the same technological advances in propulsion, aerodynamics, avionics and materials,” reads the historical description of the Flying Pencil by Boeing.

Though the sales of the narrow-body never truly kicked-off. While its wide-body brother cannot boast an impressive order book, at least it is still produced as a freighter. Ever since its pre-production design period, the 757 was a big question mark for Boeing.

“The design boys wanted a specific number. I said no: A number would imply we know what the hell we’re going to build and we don’t. So the 7X7 is whatever we’re going to do next,” Thornton Wilson, Boeing board chairman and chief executive stated in 1973. 

The 7X7 turned out to be the 757. Together with Eastern Air Lines and British Airways, the first customers of the aircraft, it was finally launched in 1978.

But the decision to launch the two aircraft simultaneously was not because Boeing wanted the 757 and 767 to build a home, plant a tree and retire with grandchildren of their own.

“Frankly, our ability to forecast is so lousy that the only way you can survive is to cover all your bets,” the Seattle Times quoted Boeing vice president Kent Holtby. 

The company wanted to cover its ground for decades to come, yet was hesitant to go all-in on one product. Its offering was not as diverse at the time – after all, it had just recently released the Boeing 747 into service, another wide-body jet. As fuel prices spiked, its path forward was only lit up by the fact that Boeing knew it had to build a twin-jet and avoid three or four engines.

At the wrong time?

Some criticized the company that the aircraft was not well-suited to their needs at the time.

The industry was not what it was back then. If 2019 was once again a record-breaking year in terms of passenger numbers, 1983 started with the fresh scars of the 1979 energy crisis and a subsequent recession. The world’s population was less globally connected as the Iron Curtain was still up. In general, the 1980s was a very different time for the aviation industry and the Boeing 757 could be the perfect example of that.

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