Westbound Inconvenience: Why 757s are prone to transatlantic fuel stops

You’re flying along, looking out at the sky, and everything seems to be going smoothly. Suddenly, the captain comes on and makes an announcement, saying something along the lines of “we’re going to be diverting due to weather at our destination.” A collective groan falls over the cabin, and the plane begins an unexpected descent.

Having been on two different diverted flights, I’ve had this experience firsthand. And while I do enjoy the opportunity to add another landing (and takeoff) to my flight log, I can’t say I enjoy having my routine interrupted. Particularly when it comes to travel, I don’t like surprises — I prefer things to be predictable. Of course, this isn’t something you can prevent, so I’ve learned to get with it, whatever happens. Both of the diversions I’ve encountered have been due to weather. However, while it is the cause of a significant number of diversions, weather isn’t the only culprit: security issues, mechanical anomalies, and fuel are a few of the many causes that can send people to places they hadn’t planned on going.

Transatlantic Fuel Stops Fuel the Fire

Fuel, in particular, has caused a number of diversions in recent years — particularly with Boeing 757s flying westbound transatlantic flights. As the largest narrowbody aircraft, the 757 has a range of around 4,400 miles, which makes it comfortably suitable for transatlantic operations. A number of different medium-range, “thin” routes which wouldn’t be profitable with a widebody aircraft are possible thanks to the 757. Indeed, it makes a number of routes possible in similar fashion to the way the Boeing 787 makes long, “thin” routes more than just a pipe dream.

However, the 757 has also drawn the ire of a number of transatlantic travelers — particularly in the winter months. During that time, the headwinds of the jetstream are at their strongest, meaning that planes need more fuel than usual to compensate. And while widebodies generally don’t have an issue with this, the 757 doesn’t have the same fuel capacity that those larger planes do. Their range is usually good enough to make a transatlantic crossing without much issue, but they are much more prone to fuel diversions than their larger counterparts.

This frustration was the subject of a 2015 piece on Mashable, titled Why choosing the right airplane type is crucial in the wintertime. There are a number of other pieces, too, on the subject, including a piece in the Wall Street Journal, but those are behind a paywall. Regardless, the Mashable piece raises a number of interesting points, particularly that many simply choose the cheapest flight, regardless of other factors. This can be a dangerous game to play — and, in the case of a business traveler who needs to be somewhere at a given time, it can mean missing an obligation. Of course, that’s a dramatization, but I think my point is clear.

Not All Flights Are Equal

Some flights are more prone to diversions than others. For example, a sector that is around 3,000 miles in length, such as Aer Lingus’ Shannon, Ireland to Boston route (2,891 miles), does not see an incredible number of diversions. Start talking about routes in the neighborhood of 4,000 miles, however, and it’s a different story. This summer, AA203, a flight from Amsterdam to Philadelphia (3,715 miles) diverted to Bangor, ME a number of times. This fall, AA55, which goes from Manchester, England to Chicago O’Hare (3,826 miles) stops in Bangor with some regularity.

Sometimes, the carrier realizes before the flight that it isn’t able to make it on a full tank, and informs passengers of the impending disruption. And while it’s a nice gesture, as diversion-related surprises are not fun for most passengers, I can imagine it’s incredibly frustrating to be told of an impending diversion, whether in the air or on the ground.

Use Your Judgement

I certainly don’t want to discourage anyone from flying transatlantic on a 757. On a number of routes, it’s the only aircraft that makes service viable — and for those routes, I would say absolutely take it. Moreover, the chance of having a fuel stop are far from a sure thing. That said, if there are other options at a comparable price when you are traveling, I might encourage you to think twice before taking a westbound 757 in the winter.