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Boeing said it’s studying airlines’ appetite for a new medium-size plane for transcontinental flights within the U.S., the market that includes the most-lucrative routes for domestic carriers.

Some customers have already shown interest in such a jet, John Wojick, the sales chief for Boeing Commercial Aircraft, said Tuesday in Singapore. Boeing isn’t in position to start work on the project immediately, said Scott Fancher, the planemaker’s head of aircraft development.

A midrange aircraft would fill a gap left when Boeing’s 757, the longest single-aisle airliner, went out of production in 2004. U.S. transcontinental service includes the New York-to- Los Angeles trips prized by airlines because of the demand for premium seats, and Airbus Group is trying to win orders by extending the range of its A321.

“It’s the niche which has the oldest airplane serving it, and it’s the niche that we don’t cover with our current offerings,” Fancher said in an interview at the Singapore Airshow.

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U.S. airlines operate 70 percent of the 819 Boeing 757s still in service, according to Ascend Worldwide data compiled by Bloomberg
Industries. Europe’s airlines and freight haulers fly 19 percent of the global 757 fleet, while a handful of the aircraft serve the Middle East.

The market segment may be too small to make replacing the 757 a priority for Boeing, especially since Middle Eastern and Asian carriers favor larger jets to ferry travelers between population centers, said George Ferguson, a senior analyst with Bloomberg Industries in Skillman, N.J.

“Herein lies the problem with 757s,” Ferguson said in a telephone interview. “If you assume that the addressable market for the 757 are people that are holding it already, you have a market that’s a little bit less than 1,000 planes.”

Delta Air Lines, the biggest 757 operator, declined to comment on any of its discussions with Boeing, Anthony Black, a spokesman, said in an interview. United Airlines and American Airlines are the next two-largest users of 757 passenger jets.

Boeing engineers are occupied with the development of the twin-aisle 777X and narrow-body 737 MAX, both of which are upgrades of existing models, as well as two stretched 787 Dreamliners. The 777X is due to enter service by the end of the decade while the MAX is set to begin commercial flights in 2017.

Boeing introduced the 757 in 1983, and carriers began using the 200- to 289-seat jet in ways the company hadn’t envisioned, including crossing the U.S. and flying from the East Coast to parts of Europe, Fancher said. Boeing must think hard about what a successor would do, he said.

“First question is, how big is the market, and then, what size plane, what range, what operating economics and characteristics,” Wojick said in Singapore. “We’re studying that, like the other guys are.”

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