Could the Boeing 757 Mean Fewer Delayed Flights?

I expected to get on my American Airlines flight at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and land in Phoenix. That happened eventually, but nowhere near as planned. We arrived about two hours late because we had to stop for fuel in Kansas City, Mo.

Let me get something out of the way: Don’t roll your eyes and criticize American Airlines. It could’ve been any airline flying an Airbus A320-type or Boeing 737-family aircraft (we were on an A321). On top of that, the flight attendants remained very friendly and courteous through it all, despite grumpy passengers (and jerks like the guy next to me, who pushed the flight attendant call button while we were landed in Kansas City to order gin and tonic. Dude.). The pilots also did their best to keep us informed.

La Compagnie’s 757s are all business class.

Where the 737 and A320 Fall Short

Okay, back to that refueling stop — Reagan has a short runway. Our Airbus A320 was full of passengers, as was my flight from Phoenix to Reagan. Combine a heavy plane with a short runway, and your pilots wind up with some obstacles. Put enough fuel into the plane to get to Phoenix under the wrong conditions, and the plane’s too heavy to take off. I suspect some weather conditions might’ve also contributed to the situation.

Performance isn’t the priority for jets like the A320 and 737. They’re efficient flying Honda Civics. Airbus and Boeing bet heavily that airlines wanted, and the A320 and 737 do the job 95 percent of the time.

Way too many 757s have wound up like this before their time.

This was one of that 5 percent (I’m making that number up based on a few things I’ve read — but I think it’s close to accurate).

A Job for the 757

Now, there is a plane that could handle this job with aplomb: the Boeing 757, a powerhouse single-aisle aircraft that can take off heavily loaded from even high-altitude airports and get you pretty darn far. It can do so much that the newer generation of smaller twinjets can’t – and pilots love ‘em for that and more. The problem is, Boeing stopped making them. There is no replacement for the aging models still flying today. It’s so versatile that airlines can even use it for intercontinental flights, such as one I took from Stockholm-Arlanda in Sweden to Newark.

And here’s the big question – why have the airlines and aircraft manufacturers ignored such a capable plane?

A U.S. Airways 757 lands at Phoenix Sky Harbor. Umm, would a visit or two from a 777 be too much to ask?
A U.S. Airways 757 lands at Phoenix Sky Harbor.

Can the NMA/MOM/797 Solve This Problem?

Boeing is only starting, after a lot of prodding from pilots, passengers and a few airlines, starting to consider a replacement that they call the New Mid-Market Aircraft (NMA). The NMA might do more than replace the 757 – it might take the place of its even-larger sibling, the wide-body 767.

Let’s just hope Boeing keeps the performance needs in mind, because that’s what the 757 does so well. It would’ve screamed right off of Reagan’s short runway and gotten me back to Phoenix without adding hours to my already long trip with a stop in Kansas City.

A chilly morning at Keflavik International Airport in Iceland – no problem for this 757!

It seems like that should be a priority for airlines. Consider the 180-some people on my A321. How many of them missed connecting flights in Phoenix because of the delay? Quite a few, judging by the grumbling and kvetching near me. One passenger who claimed to fly the route often said the Kansas City fuel stop happens often. How much compensation did American Airlines have to shell out because of that? How does it tarnish their reputation with passengers? In short, how much do delays like this hurt their bottom line -- all because of aircraft that are ill-suited for the job?

Unfortunately, as cool as the NMA sounds and how much effective technology it might borrow from the delayed-but-successful 787 Dreamliner, it’s unlikely you’ll see it on a runway in less than 10 years.


United Airlines Versus American Airlines – A Round Trip to Newark

United Airlines Versus American Airlines
Heading to Newark on a United Airlines A320.

My recent travel unexpectedly turned into a little United Airlines versus American Airlines test. I didn’t book the flights, and my wife wound up booking a different airline for each leg of the trip. We flew to Newark from Phoenix Sky Harbor on United Airlines, and returned on American Airlines. Here’s how it all shook out.

United Airlines – Sky Harbor to Newark

One of the reasons I like flying United Airlines from Sky Harbor is because it’s at Terminal 2, the smallest of Sky Harbor’s terminals. Plus, there’s a long-term parking lot a short walk from the terminal. That’s pretty huge. For some reason, we were selected for pre-check to move us through the line faster.

We flew on a pretty shiny Airbus A320 that didn’t look anywhere near its 18 years of age. It still smelled good, and had those nice new slimline seats that move the seat pocket high to free up extra legroom.

English: Stroopwafels Esperanto: Siropvaflo Fr...
The United Airlines take on a stroopwafel – which this is not – is extremely tasty. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This was an early, long flight. No time for breakfast, so we had to make do with what was on-board. United Airlines has gotten a lot of recent praise for its stroopwafel, and it definitely deserves that praise. It’s one of the tastiest free airline snacks I’ve ever had. They also had two impressive for-sale breakfast items that Sarah and I tried (and shared with Anneka): a chilaquiles mexican skillet and a ricotta-and-berry French toast. We were both surprised by the quality. I’d skip standing in line before a flight and opt for these any day.

After breakfast, I tried to get a little sleep. The slimline seat was nice in every way but the headrest. I raised it up to my height, but it never gave me any support for the head. I just kept tilting back into a very uncomfortable position – I also tried stuffing my jacket in the space between my neck and the seat, but not even that worked. This likely wouldn’t be a problem on a later flight because I’d have my nose shoved into my Kindle (I’m reading a spectacular book called Angelmaker from Nick Harkaway). As it was, I got enough sleep to get by, and it felt pretty fast for a more than four-hour flight.

United Airlines Versus American Airlines
Some passengers bring their own in-flight food.

This was my first flight to Newark, and the terminal was more modern than I expected. Baggage claim was pretty quick, so I had no complaints about how things turned out on the ground.

I’d definitely consider this flight a win for United Airlines.

Round Two – United Airlines Versus American Airlines

On the way back to Arizona, we left from Newark’s Terminal A. That terminal and its TSA setup are a study in inefficiency, bureaucracy and rank stupidity. The TSA agents there are in such of a state of stupefied terror that they insisted that we send a stuffed owl attached to Anneka’s stroller through that X-ray for examination – how effective can those millimeter-wave porno-scanners be if they can’t handle a stuffed owl? American Airlines is in no way responsible for this, but I would pay extra for an airline that doesn’t fly out of Newark Terminal A.

United Airlines Versus American Airlines
Inside our American Airlines 737-800.

Sarah and I were scheduled to fly an American Airlines Boeing 737-800. I heard more than a few passengers ask "How old is this plane, anyway?" While boarding. It’s probably the bulky old-style seats that prompted the question – and this 737 did not have the very slick, sleek Dreamliner-inspired Boeing Sky interior (which beats the pants off any other interior, even the recently released Airbus Airspace cabin). More than a few people had trouble getting their carry-on luggage into the bins, mostly because some lip of metal seemed to be hanging lower than it should. It’s honestly not that old of a plane, about 15 years old according to my info (though a lot has changed in the last 15 years, as far as the passenger experience).

United Airlines Versus American Airlines
Compare the United Airlines A320 or the American Airlines 737 to this Norwegian Air 737 with the Boeing Sky interior. Both fall short.

The seat wasn’t too terrible, but I knew I wouldn’t get any sleep on this 5-hour-plus flight, mostly because the headrest doesn’t extend. Sarah was also sitting across the aisle, which would make it a bit tough to handle Anneka – she’s a long baby, so it’s a challenge to keep her from invading other people’s space. That’s OK if you’re seated next to the other parent, but a bit harsh for anyone else.

American Airlines is also handing out free snacks, but its mix of grainy things definitely comes in a good distance behind the United Airlines stroopwafel. On the other hand, American Airlines offers some nice paid menu items. The fruit and cheese platter was more than satisfying.

Overall, a not-unpleasant yet not-impressive flight.

Summing It Up: United Airlines Versus American Airlines

So, is there a winner or loser here? The flight attendants on both flights were nice enough. Perfunctory nice, not Lufthansa or Asiana Airlines or ANA nice. Nothing stood out in either direction.

As far as terminals, United is the winner here. Food? A slight edge to United.

As for aircraft, I have to deduct points from both. United Airlines has plenty of domestic aircraft equipped with AVOD, and I’d call that a must for a transcontinental flight. Then there’s the seat headrest problem with both. United eases ahead with a much nicer if not much newer aircraft.

Overall, United wins in this particular United Airlines versus American Airlines contest.

Want to read about another recent experience on United Airlines? Here’s how they stranded me in Chicago after a flight from Germany, and what they did to make the situation better.