Kicking it old school: Boeing considers passenger 767s again


United 767 departing Heathrow
United 767 departing Heathrow

Moving 200-250 people 4,000-5,000 miles presents an interesting challenge for airlines these days. That mission historically was filled by the 767 family. But  the passenger side of that production line went quiet three years ago, delivering a 767-300 to Air Astana in May 2014. Airbus says the A330neo can fill that role, though it is also slightly larger and has a significantly higher range. Boeing has the 787 Dreamliner family, too, with the correct seat count but also a much higher range. So what is an airline to do?

If rumors are to be believed the answer might be a surprising one: Boeing is considering bringing the 767 back into production for passenger service. Boeing is reportedly in contact with suppliers to see if the necessary components can be delivered quickly and in volume. Some 50-100 of the type are needed, it seems, with deliveries in the early 2020s.

United Airlines is the presumed customer, with an aging fleet of 757s and 767s used for intercontinental operations and a penchant for Boeing aircraft orders. The carrier scaled back international 757 service recently as it increased domestic service while its aging 767 fleet (20+ years on average) remains challenging on the dispatch reliability front. That adds up to real money for the carrier. New aircraft have lower maintenance costs and generally better reliability. But can Boeing get there at the right price?

Playing with the numbers

The economics of such a move are complex, both for Boeing and for an airline customer. Boeing wants to sell more 787s and, eventually, the 797/NMA/MOM aircraft. Those planes would be available in the middle of the next decade, in theory. But that project is not officially live, complicating matters. With a 20-year operating life the idea of selling the 767s in the early part of the 2020s only to replace them 5 years later potentially reduces demand for the NMA market, even if only 50-100 frames. That shift could be offset with a planned early transition of the 767s into freighter service, with the passenger airline taking NMAs, but the costs for a stopgap program like that are high.



Another risk with the move is the bet it places on long-term fuel prices. The 787 offers lower costs per seat mile than the 767 but also comes with a significantly higher up-front price (~$50mm at list prices back when both were on sale). With oil prices relatively steady and low right now the bet on the 767 could pay off. But that also means predicting geopolitics and economic development decades into the future for the immediate impact. That’s a significant gamble.

Read More: A330neo First Flight Photos

Yet another risk with bringing back the 767 is the impact to profitability of the 787 program overall. By most measures Boeing is nowhere close to profitability on the Dreamliner program and dipping in to potential sales does not help that effort.

What is the real market demand?

The discussions around the NMA or bringing back the 767 raise another interesting question: Who drives market demand these days? In prior generations the US and Europe-based carriers held significant sway over developments at Boeing and Airbus. In the past decade the mega-orders shifted to the Middle East, significantly altering the dynamic of what would be built and the specifications on those aircraft. Uncertain profitability and stability in that region, combined with the growing long-haul LCC market have many analysts expecting significant deferrals of both Airbus and Boeing long-haul orders in the coming years.

Read More: Second guessing the A330neo

US carriers are also pushing back on delivery dates for larger planes; all of the “Big 3” US carriers have deferred A350 orders multiple times in recent years. And the big push into secondary cities – the “long, thin routes” supported by the Dreamliner – appears to be scaling back in favor of strengthening join ventures and hub connections.



At the same time, however, LCCs and smaller carriers are pushing heavily into secondary cities, especially in the Transatlantic market. And that’s the market where the NMA appears truly focused. Continental Airlines loved using 757-200s into secondary European markets and United Airlines mostly kept those routes after the merger. But they’ve pulled back in recent years to focus on stronger domestic yields. Growing that fleet could bring routes back. Or it could just be a replacement cycle because of existing aircraft age, with the NMA the real growth somewhere down the line.

Betting on cargo

Residual value of the 767s is also critical to the math behind bringing them back into passenger service. And these days the secondary market is nearly all cargo. It would be interesting to see Boeing facilitate that transition, having the planes fly in commercial service for 5-10 years until they can be replaced by the NMA with Boeing guaranteeing the buy-back of the 763s and conversion to freighters. That de-risks the impact to the NMA, guaranteeing orders there and a smooth transition. Plus the cargo market gets the freighters slightly younger than they typically do in the used market. And there should still be reasonable demand for the 763F 15 years from now when this all happens.

A passenger win

Assuming the resumption of 767-300ER line comes to pass that’s mostly good news for most passengers. The fuselage diameter and seat sizes pretty much mandate that the seat layout sticks at a comfortably wide 2-3-2 in economy class. United’s version has a direct aisle access business class option in the new Polaris seat (though only one flying in the new layout today). And should the airline ever bother to join the rest of the market with a premium economy product that would fit nicely as well.

The 787 does offer better air pressure/quality and humidity on board but that’s slightly less significant on the “short” long-haul trips the 767s flies in United’s route network.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and .

37 Comments

  1. Requires minimal investment as 767 still is being produced as freighter and tanker. If memory serves me right, several operators also selected new and discounted 767’s then the 787 was delayed.
    Perhaps we’ll see a 767NG with new engines … ?

  2. If airlines are already deeming the 787 as too much plane for the mission they would rather put a 757/767/797/NMA/MOM, could you really say that those orders would have eventually gone 787? I think the hurting 787 program profitability argument is a non-factor unless you’re convinced no one was going to fill the space and airlines would be forced to overbuy capability. Airbus will likely build the A322 and force Boeing’s hand.

    1. I think the chance that Boeing convinces an airline to use the 787 on those routes drops significantly if the 767 suddenly is available again. 😉

      Assuming a single-aisle “A322” option from Airbus I am not at all convinced that’s a good choice. Much like the 753 or even the 739ER stretching a single-aisle too far eventually becomes troublesome for airlines on turn time and other factors. That’s not the efficiency airlines are looking for with a new plane.

    1. As a coach passenger I mostly like it, given that going tighter than 2-3-2 isn’t going to happen. Beyond that, it is all sorts of strange, both good and bad.

    2. Yeah, it’s a great aircraft in economy – perhaps one of the best ever designed back there. It also presents a lot of challenges up front, where it’s just not quite wide enough for the best lie flat business seats to work.

      That said, I’d still love to see a new batch of 767s out there.

    3. The staggered setup in C is a bit too narrow versus a reverse Herringbone to have a decent sleep position. I have short legs and I think the foot well is too narrow for C as well. AC’s 1-1-1 setup is about the best C seat for a 767, IMHO.

  3. I always wondered why the 767 wasn’t in more demand still, at least that size plane, and why Boeing never renewed the project. I know it’s an old plane but it fits well, there’s a reason it’s still in use even if it’s no longer in production.

    1. but there is also a reason it isn’t in production (passenger variant). Airlines stopped ordering it. There reached a point where the price of a new 767 was not worth it compared to 737 / 787. I do think Boeing assumed the market would move a little more than it did towards longer range. The 787 at almost $100 M list price more than the last 767 is a huge price increase if the mission doesn’t change and all you get is a little better operating margin. And those key missions are longer than a 737Max at slightly more capacity, the 757/767 bread and butter routes. That hap has existed for a bit. But that doesn’t mean the answer is a new 767 – not everything should be replaced 1:1. It could be more 737 MAX and replace capacity with frequency, it could be utilizing older, depreciated planes like the 777, it could be the cheaper a330 / a330NEO, or it could be vacating certain routes and flowing over hubs. Does Boeing see the market as big enough to justify restarting a line and those costs vs. discounting the 787 to win an order similar to the UA 737 order.

      As a pax, I like the 767. And airlines like it too, mostly because for many carriers it is older and paid off or attractively priced. It is a reliable workhorse that can fit international and domestic routes. And the 767 is still in production for military and cargo variants, and the passenger version was made even into the 787 program launch as delays stacked up early.

      Seems like more of the 757 talk that existed a few years ago. Nostalgia + unique acquisition and operating costs + attractive fuel costs made an airplane look good in short term, but not necessarily one which can be restarted and sold again at today’s prices. If Boeing doesn’t go after the MOM, they will face a long term challenge as optimization opportunities on old frames are running out.

      1. The spread was $50mm list, not $100mm, from the data I could find. And it is easier for Boeing to discount the 767s since the line was already profitable and the development costs are long paid off. Also remember that when the flurry of 787 orders came about fuel was 2x the price it is now so it was just a “little better” operating margin but a significant difference there.

        The 787-3 was close but 1000 miles short on range. And still way too expensive CapEx.

        And, yes, this is similar to the talk of restarting 752 production with the main difference being that the line is still operational and the tooling all still exists. It is less nostalgia and more about not losing a major airline customer that Boeing really, really, really seems to bend over backwards for when at all possible.

    1. New Midsize Airplane
      Middle of Market Airplane

      both to refer to the 757-767 sized replacement aircraft that is in the 200-250 seat range, smaller than 787 and larger than 737

  4. the gap is obvious and glaring … just take the max ULCC airlines can *realistically* stuff into the planes :

    737-MAX 200 : 200 seats , 4 FAs
    A321neo : 240 seats, 5 FAs (i’m sure someone is pressuing Airbus to go all the way to 250)
    789 / 339neo : roughly 400 seats, 8 FAs

    the gap for MoM/797 would be 2 sizes – one that maxes out at 6 FAs / 300, and one that maxes at 7 FAs / 350, which maps to roughly 190 seats in mixed-cabin for the smaller size one, and 225 seats for the larger one.

    1. Robert, I don’t think we’ll see them because Douggie would rather fly 737’s on long haul, not widebodies! Looks like UA is lined up for them. Any airline that flies them MIA SFO/LAX will win my loyalty!

  5. I think Boeing should worry more about a 757 replacement.And I always thought the 787 and 777 was the 767 replacement. It does show a lack of investment at Boeing for new aircraft they shouldn’t have bothered with the 747-8i and spent more money getting the 787 right first time and on time.

    1. Even if they develop the 797 as a replacement for the 757, it’s at least 7 years away once it’s launched. This can be accomplished quickly and would result in some sales that would almost definitely go to Airbus otherwise.

    2. And Boeing is marketing the MAX10 in a similar manner; it hits 80-90% of the mission profiles of the 752. But the NMA/MOM/797 “replacement” for the 757 is also an up-gauge to something larger. Really more a 787 with shorter range.

      I wonder if the 787-3 would’ve been the correct answer here had all the other program problems not cropped up.

    3. That is an interesting what if they had gone ahead with 787-3. I am surprised that Airbus hasn’t announced a proper 757 replacement but my guess is they don’t see the sales potential

    4. Airbus says the A321neo and A330neo cover the markets. Similar to Boeing I believe that is partly driven by the fact those are the planes it has available.

  6. So what if there was a large online shipping company frustrated with service from UPS/FEDEX/USPS? Hypothetically maybe a Seattle based company had started its own cargo airline with a few 767 freighters? Maybe they wanted to expand to a fleet of fifty to one hundred 767 freighters? Would such a “prime” company have enough retiring passenger aircraft to fulfill such a need? Hypothetically speaking of course and sorry for all the annoying questions. ????

  7. This Middle-of-Market airplane is very tricky business. Nobody is excited about bringing a 757-type aircraft back in the guise of an A-322 for the same reason airlines ignored the 757-300. Nobody wants to ride on an airplane that takes 30-minutes for disembarkation. Waiting a long time to get off is awful. It is difficult for staff to service so many people with one aisle. The alternative, a short 767-200 aircraft, is heavier and burns more fuel per passenger trip. So what is the 7-abreast, twin-aisle game? Less weight, read carbon fiber fuselage; less drag, read flatter, ovular shaped fuselage without freight pretense; medium range—less fuel to take aloft; hence a lighter, more efficient wing; a geared turbofan to cut 15% on SFC;, and a much shorter, lighter landing gear, positioned aft that probably forces the engines into DC-9 position; all to pull a long-haul aircraft as far down into the middle as possible. Forget extended range. We are going to get an ultra-efficient, medium-range airplane. That’s why the airlines are excited. It will be an airplane that does something special, something never done before, that does not confuse flying the top of the bottom of the market, or flying the bottom of the top of the market with actually breaking the mold and flying the middle of the market in a highly optimized way. It’s about flying people, not cattle.

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