American revamps Boeing 757s for shorter international flights


The conventional wisdom says that airlines should put narrow-body airplanes only on domestic routes and use the bigger wide-body jets to fly international routes.

However, that can become problematic when your smallest trans-Atlantic airplane is the Boeing 767, with 225 seats, and you have routes that can’t support that much traffic.

Such is the case for American Airlines Inc., whose answer, as it has been for a number of airlines, is to revamp its smaller, single-aisle Boeing 757s and put them on the shorter international routes.

Fort Worth-based American began flying the first of 18 reconfigured Boeing 757-200 airplanes, with new business class and economy class sections, on its New York-Brussels route Thursday, a route that was previously flown by its wide-body Boeing 767-300s.

American says other routes using the Boeing 757 may include the New York flights to Barcelona, Spain, and Paris; Boston to Paris; and Miami to Salvador, Brazil, a flight that continues to Recife, Brazil.

American and AMR Corp. chairman and chief executive Gerard Arpey said the reconfigured 757s will be used out of the Northeast to some of the smaller European markets and out of Miami to some cities on the northern rim of South American.

AMR chief financial officer Tom Horton said on the company’s earnings call April 15 that the reconfigured 757 probably will be used both to replace larger planes on existing routes and for “some new flying. It’s going to be a very nice product. We’re going to have true lay-flat in first class, which will distinguish from others flying 757s long-haul.”

American’s 124 Boeing 757s typically are configured with 188 seats – 22 business-class seats and 166 seats in economy class. But the international 757s have only 182 seats, with only 16 in business class.

The 18 being converted for international flights are being reconfigured with the new seating, flat-panel TVs replacing the old-style monitors, new toilets and a better in-flight entertainment system. Two are now finished, with the remaining airplanes to undergo their remake by the end of 2009.

American is neither the first nor the most aggressive in using Boeing 757s to fly to Europe.

Continental Airlines Inc. flies from its Newark, N.J., hub to 19 European cities, including two cities more than 3,900 miles away: Stockholm and Berlin.

Delta Air Lines Inc. has also relied on the Boeing 757 to expand its route system from New York, adding cities in Europe and Africa. Even American has flown Boeing 757s to Europe in the past, such as between New York and Manchester, England, in 1995.

Miami-based airline consultant Stuart Klaskin said American and others have flown narrow-bodies into Latin America, even deep South America, for at least a decade.

Using the smaller airplanes allows carriers to serve the “long, thin routes” that can’t support a larger airplane, Klaskin said.

In some cases, it might be a route whose traffic has declined, or a new route to a secondary European city that is too small to support the Boeing 767s, Boeing 777s, Airbus A330s or Airbus A340s that make up the bulk of the U.S. industry’s wide-body fleet.

“It’s actually a very innovative way of maintaining and even expanding an international route system: to put a smaller airplane into what would historically have been a wide-body market,” Klaskin said.

Usually, an airline can fly a Boeing 767-300 full of passengers at a lower cost per passenger than a Boeing 757-200 full of passengers. However, an almost full 757-200 with a smaller crew that burns less fuel can make the trip more economically than a 767-300 with the same number of passengers.

“It allows the airline to maintain service without losing money, or not losing as much money in today’s environment,” Klaskin said.

One drawback to using Boeing 757s is that many travelers prefer a wide-body aircraft, believing it to be more comfortable than a single-aisle airplane like the Boeing 757, Klaskin said.

He’s not so sure. The 757s have fewer passengers and no crowded middle column of seats in the economy section.

The business class sections at the front should be equally comfortable in a wide-body or narrow-body airplane, he said.

“I think in the very worst case, the airplanes are equally uncomfortable in coach.”