The long-expected A321XLR officially joined the aviation world this morning in Paris. The announcement by Airbus, further tweaking the A321neo design to squeeze another 700 nautical miles of range into the frame, gives airframer a commanding position in the single-aisle market. Airlines can choose from planes seating as few as ~130 up to 240. The planes can fly short hops or routes never before considered in a narrow-body. The new aircraft is expected to enter service in 2023.
The A321XLR sports upgraded landing gear to support a 101 tonne maximum take-off weight. That number is driven by a significantly larger rear center fuel tank (RCT) fitted into the aircraft. It carries an extra 12,900 litres (~3400 gallons) of fuel, giving the aircraft most of its range boost compared to the A321neo and A321LR. Additional center tanks can be fitted to the XLR to realize its full range potential. The RCT takes up less space in the fuselage than prior, optional auxiliary tank configurations. This allows the plane to fly further and still leaves room for all the checked bags passengers bring along on the journey.
Airbus highlights routes from the US east coast deeper into Europe or between China and Australia as some of the key markets the new type could open up. India to Europe nonstop on a single-aisle plane also becomes an option. The company also points out that the A321XLR will deliver the “Airspace by Airbus” design details that add some comfort to the passenger experience. Some questions remain about just what that experience will include.
Can long-haul single-aisle be comfortable?
A proper premium two-class layout, offered today by some carriers on the A321 family and also the 737 MAX, delivers lie-flat beds at the front of the plane. SilkAir chose the Vantage product, matching the JetBlue Mint setup. La Compagnie chose the Collins Aerospace Diamond seat for its A321neo planes. And JetBlue is planning a updated Mint v2 option for its A321LR fleet due in late 2020. Aer Lingus and FlyDubai made similar choices as well. So the seating is not really a problem.
Inflight entertainment and connectivity solutions are also comparable on the A320 family relative to twin-aisle aircraft. Or at least they can be. A single-aisle plane arguably brings more vendors into play as some prefer to work at the smaller scale. The airlines must choose to equip the planes that way, however, and there is no guarantee that comes to pass. United Airlines chose to fly its high-density 777-200ER across the Atlantic, for example, eschewing the in-seat entertainment screens typically found on long-haul routes from legacy carriers. One could argue that United is short on planes with the necessary range to make the trips, a need the XLR fills nicely as the carrier’s 757 and 767 fleets age, but the entertainment choice remains with the airline.
And then there are the environmental comforts that make the larger planes more pleasant for long-haul travel. The newest types – A350s and 787s – fly with higher air pressure and more humidity in the cabins. This is enabled by the composite skin of the fuselage, less susceptible to corrosion. The A320 family of planes does not deliver that benefit. Maybe it matters a lot. Maybe not at all. But the manufacturers pushed that as an anti-jetlag factor for years. Taking it away for a plane designed to cross many time zones brings less than stellar optics to the situation.
Another consideration is the plight of passengers with reduced mobility on the single-aisle aircraft. While regulations mandate accessible lavatories on twin-aisle planes that is not the case for the narrower ones. As flight times extend this presents challenges for wheelchair passengers. Or, as wheelchair travel advocate John Morris points out, “A shockingly long time to go without access to a toilet.”
Efforts are being made to bring accessible lavatories on to narrow-body aircraft, though that typically arrives in a layout that is uncomfortable for everyone involved. Perhaps the airlines considering the longest options for the A321XLR will also consider the lavatory challenges it poses. Or perhaps just the finances of how many seats fit on board.
Where will it fly?
The first airline confirmed for the A321XLR is Lebanese flag carrier Middle East Airlines. The carrier will take four of the new planes. MEA will use the A321XLR to strengthen its network in Africa and Asia, according to the release.Possible destinations for the carrier that would not be possible with the A321LR included Saigon, Singapore, Seoul, Shanghai, and Cape Town.
Leasing giant ALC was the launch customer for the plane, signing a letter of intent for 27 of the type (as part of a 100 aircraft deal). Specific airlines were not named. Airbus hinted that more orders would be announced during the week, leaving plenty of speculation in play. JetBlue could take advantage of the extended range to reach deeper into Europe from Boston and JFK, or to dip into South America’s premium markets from Fort Lauderdale. American Airlines needs frames to help boost its Phoenix-Hawaii service and to keep Philadelphia and Chicago connected to secondary markets in Europe.
On the European side TAP Air Portugal is a likely customer, converting some A321LR orders to add range deeper into the USA or South America with the XLR. Aer Lingus might feel similarly, though delivery timing could factor into that decision.
In Asia the type could see significant success, connecting Indian LCC carriers to Europe (assuming passengers put up with the threadbare model on flights that long). North-south routes from China and Japan to Australia similarly come into LCC range.
Does XLR kill the NMA?
Beyond the opportunities for Airbus, the A321XLR further squeezes Boeing‘s ability to differentiate its “NMA” design that will not launch this week at Le Bourget. If the ovoid twin-aisle layout previously mooted takes shape the A321XLR will remain the single-aisle with the greatest range, but that’s not necessarily a solution for all carriers. Qatar Airways is not interested in the XLR. Or, at least not interested enough to back down from NMA considerations, according to reports.
The XLR only hits part of the range that the NMA expects to cover, squeezing from below while the A330neo squeezes from above. Boeing has the 787 for the larger or longer flights but needs to fill in at the lower end. Or maybe not. Perhaps a derated version of the 787-8 could be big enough and fly far enough to fill the gap at a per-plane price that better suits Boeing’s needs versus investing in the new type.
Moreover, the operating economics of the NMA promise – at least in theory – to further improve from the A321XLR. Presumably because of newer technologies with engines and construction the NMA should be lighter and more fuel efficient as well. Yes, the A321XLR improves on the 757-200 by 30%, but the industry must continue to trim its environmental impact and new generations of planes should deliver on that.
More from the 2019 Paris Air Show
- Airbus A321XLR: The future of single-aisle long-haul travel
- IAG makes a MAX move in Paris
- SmartSky boosts sales channel with Honeywell Aerospace VAR deal
- Different business models, same aircraft model: American, Frontier and JetBlue take on the A321XLR
- Boom’s supersonic timing slips
- Mitsubishi’s SpaceJet buys Bombardier’s support