This article was first published in the summer of 2019 as part of a 100 part series on the history of British Airways and its predecessor airlines, Imperial Airways, BOAC and BEA. You can browse the full series of 100 stories in numerical order, by theme or by decade.
The Boeing 757 was the little aircraft that could.
Its prospects at launch were not good. Boeing launched the aircraft in the late 1970s when airlines were grappling with an economic recession and rising fuel prices.
However, BA desperately needed to secure a replacement for uneconomical Trident aircraft for short-haul routes. These aircraft had three engines and required three flight crew. They also had to be phased out by 1986 due to noise regulations.
BA, along with Eastern Airways, placed the first two orders for the aircraft in 1978 with BA initially ordering 19 aircraft, securing production of the aircraft by Boeing.
The order was not without controversy. BA was facing heavy financial losses the early 1980s. There was genuine questions as to whether the airline might have to enter into administration and there were pressures on BA to cut the order to reduce capital expenditure. There were also political pressures on BA in the UK to place an aircraft order with Airbus, and not Boeing.
However, BA persisted and the first aircraft entered into service at BA in February 1983, initially operating Shuttle services to UK domestic routes and then major trunk destinations in mainland Europe. It offered vastly better fuel efficiency and significantly more sophisticated computerised in-flight management systems than the aircraft it replaced.
During the 1980s and 1990s the aircraft performed extremely well for BA and it continued to top up its orders. It was quite an aircraft to fly on, with an unforgettably steep climb during take-off. There was a dedicated Shuttle configuration of 195 seats and a European configuration of 180 seats.
The aircraft did also briefly operate long-haul routes from UK regional airports in the mid 1990s. One aircraft operated Glasgow – New York JFK – Boston and another Birmingham – New York JFK – Toronto. However, this was not a financial success and these aircraft were soon returned to short-haul use.
The late 1990s
By the late 1990s, the aircraft started to fall out of favour.
In September 1999, after BA had placed its first order for new smaller capacity short-haul aircraft with Airbus, BA announced that 34 of its fleet of what was then 53 aircraft would be sold to DHL for conversion into freighters.
Four aircraft were also sold before their planned delivery in 1999. (Airbus A320 aircraft have of course been “densified” with a configuration now close to the Boeing 757’s capacity)
The Boeing 757 did get a brief respite when BA launched a new airline called “OpenSkies” to take advantage of the liberalisation of the EU – US aviation market in 2008.
The initial plan was to provide with the airline up to 13 of its remaining Boeing 757s from BA. These were to be reconfigured in a long-haul configuration with BA’s first Club World flat bed (branded “Biz Bed”) in business class.
The airline launched with Paris Orly to New York JFK in June 2008. It was well received by passengers and BA also bought a French rival L’Avion, which also operated the 757. However, later route launches between Amsterdam and New York and Paris and Washington were not successful and the airline did not meet it financial targets.
In early 2009, BA decided to sell what remained in its Boeing 757 fleet rather than transfer them to OpenSkies. After a long period in limbo, the airline ceased operations under the OpenSkies name in 2018.
The last Boeing 757 aircraft to be retired from the main BA fleet was aircraft G-CPET in November 2010. As tends to be the case with BA when aircraft are approaching retirement, the interior condition left a lot to be desired. The aircraft was however painted in the original 757 Negus livery to mark its retirement.