Wonderful Silver Birds Leave the American Airlines Fleet

The 757, with way powerful Rolls Royce engines

COVID-19 has turned a lot of businesses, and much of the world, upside down, but the airline business – the place where I’ve spent almost my entire working life – is especially under siege.  Passenger demand and thus revenues have dropped, in many places by more than 90%.  If you run an airline, you can’t shrink to survive, because it’s an industry with fixed costs of 70 to 80%.  There’s no demand for a big Boeing to fly across an ocean, but you still have to pay for it when it’s parked in Abilene, Texas, or Pittsburgh, or wherever.  Lots of other fixed expense, too, for airport rents, for skilled people like pilots and mechanics who must be retained, and more.

Without knowing anything about how and when travel demand will return, the hiatus has prompted many airlines to take decisions about their essential assets, airplanes.  So it was a few days ago when American Airlines, the company that provided me an awesome and challenging 22-year career, announced that it was retiring its Boeing 757 and Boeing 767-300 fleets.  These marvelous Silver Birds were an important core of the AA fleet for many years.  In a time when Boeing is being justifiably criticized for bad decisions about the 737 MAX, we might pause to lift up and recognize the “Seven-five” and “Seven-six-three” for their reliability, safety, and performance over more than three decades; the 767-300 entered the fleet in the 1988, and the 757 a year later.

The 767-300 in the new paint job, with added winglets to reduce fuel use

The news that these jets were making their last departures was personal.   Regular readers know how much I celebrate all the good things that the jet airplane enables – economic development, market expansion, tourism, vacations, fresh flowers, educational exchange, hugs, and so much more – so I pause here to remember the many happy rides I had on American’s 757s and 767-300s.  Well, okay, you may know that your scribe is a Transport Geek, and you’re not surprised that I’ve kept records of every flight since the first takeoff in 1966, so I can tell you this:

  • 293 flights on AA 757s, totaling 636,774 miles; first ride was Washington-Dallas/Fort Worth in July 1990, last was Amsterdam-Philadelphia in November 2017 (with a refueling stop in Bangor, Maine)
  • 167 flights on AA 767s (including a few on the slightly smaller 767-200), totaling 636,774 miles; first was San Francisco-DFW, November 1987, a month after I joined American, and the last was also Amsterdam-Philadelphia in May 2019

Ergo, more than a million miles on these two great aircraft.  Scrolling through my flight database, I remembered vividly some nice rides on both types.  Chicago-Milan on a 767-300 at the start of a brilliant family vacation in June 2001, celebrating Robin’s graduation from high school, home from Toronto in August 1998, Jack and I winging back from a spectacular boys’ fishing trip in Labrador, and dozens more.

From 1994 to 2003, in the middle of these ships’ long service to American, I was lucky enough to have what was called FDJ Authorization, permission from the company to sit in the cockpit (flight deck) jumpseat, conditional on the assent of the captain.  I obtained the FDJ after American instituted a variant of its wonderful “Walk a Mile” program that enabled people to learn firsthand about frontline jobs.  In the spring of 1994, groups of us headed a mile or so from our corporate headquarters to the flight academy, the pilot training center.  We sat through a day of orientation, culminating in a short stint in a simulator (I veered off the runway on landing; the instructor didn’t think the real plane would have caught fire, but reckoned repairs would have been north of a million dollars!).  A week after orientation, a chance to sit in a real jumpseat.  I was assigned a two-day sequence in a 757 with Captain Bob Elwell, a wonderful fellow who welcomed me onto the flight deck.  We flew DFW-Washington National-DFW-Austin, then overnight.  Next morning, AUS-DFW-LGA, where I left the crew and reluctantly headed back to the office.  Unforgettable approaches to Washington, south along the Potomac River, and into LaGuardia, through the crowded airspace above metropolitan New York.

In the almost ten years that I had the FDJ card, although I could book a seat (not fly standby), even in First Class, I often chose to sit in the cockpit because it was 1) just so interesting, and 2) a standby passenger could take my seat in the cabin.  In the 757, the absolute best rides were DFW into Eagle-Vail Airport, smack in the high alpine of the Colorado Rockies.  On those flights, I saw professional aviators at their very best, because the approach into Vail is seriously challenging. (In 1998, bound for spring break skiing with the family, we made two approaches in a snowstorm, then diverted to Colorado Springs for overnight; most passengers hopped on a charter bus to Vail, but we stayed with the crew, and barely got in the next morning, way cool.)  I also rode the cockpit in the 767-300.  Returning from a family vacation in Paris in July 1997, the flight was way overbooked, so I gave up my big seat and rode the jumpseat, 10 hours and 15 minutes bolt upright, with no beer.  A couple of months later, about an hour before landing in Frankfurt, I chatted in the galley with the captain, and mentioned my FDJ card.  He invited me up front for the approach and landing.  We descended over the Ruhr, the industrial heart of Germany; I remember that sunny morning vividly: looking down, I thought this was the view that U.S. Army Air Force bombers had 55 years earlier, and was glad that in the intervening decades the awesome technology of flight had mostly been used for good, as it was that day.

So farewell, 757 and 767-300.  Thanks for the rides.

A couple of snaps from the 757 cockpit on approach to Eagle-Vail Airport, Colorado

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