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 wound up getting in 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 spout some inane criticism of 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.
Okay, back to that refueling stop – Reagan has a short runway. Our Airbus A320 was packed to the gills 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 to overcome. 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.
Jets like the A320 and 737 aren’t exactly performance oriented. They’re pretty efficient flying Honda Civics. Airbus and Boeing bet heavily that efficiency was what airlines wanted, and that the A320 and 737 could do the job a good 95 percent of the time.
This was one of that 5 percent (I’m making that number up, by the way, based on a few things I’ve read – but I think it’s close to accurate).
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 absolutely 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?
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 absolutely 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.
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, if the grumbling and kvetching near me was a good indicator. One passenger on the flight who claimed to fly the route often said the Kansas City fuel stop was a fairly common occurrence. 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.