Airbus A321XLR, a generational turning point in the history of aviation?

  • Overview of the aircraft market over the years
  • Market response on the launch of new Airbus A321XLR


Throughout the aviation history (especially through the 1960s and the 1970s) aircraft manufacturers followed the notion that bigger-is-better, developing massive aircraft such as the DC-10, Boeing 747 and Lockheed L1011 Tristar for intercontinental travel. These aircraft accommodated close to 400 passengers with limited destinations as they had to concentrate only on the main hubs where the connecting traffic could be aggregated. But these limitations changed when Airbus and Boeing launched new and modern long-range aircraft that were designed to carry around 250 passengers instead. This made more intercontinental travelling possible, with more routes and destinations. Further, with a more revolutionary advancement in technology by Boeing, which introduced the medium to long-range 787 aircraft having a passenger capacity of 250-300, this made it possible to travel almost any two points in the world. Though airlines have experimented via long-haul routes through narrow-body flights with aircraft such as the Boeing 757 and 737. But in all those cases long-haul flights were the exception rather than the norm. Traditionally, over the years most of the long-haul networks globally has continued to require wide-body aircraft until recently, because with the narrow-body aircraft airlines had to restrict passengers with payloads and sometimes required unscheduled fuel stops depending on weather and wind conditions.

The recently announced Airbus A321XLR at the Paris Air Show has taken the aviation world by storm and seems to be the answer for all their problems on long-haul flights for a narrow-body aircraft. This new aircraft announcement, which is an enhancement of the A321neo will add another 700 nautical miles of flying range into the aircraft (total flying range of about 4700 nautical miles or 5400 miles or 8700 kilometers), which makes it standalone in this particular segment in terms of the airframe, with a single-aisle. The new aircraft also reported an upgraded landing gear to support more weight, which will be able to bear a 101-ton weight during take-offs. This higher weight support has been driven by the fact that the new A321XLR has a permanent rear centre tank for more fuel, which makes it possible to hold more fuel than other aircraft while taking less space in the cargo hold. Given the planes range of about 4700 nautical miles, it would be perfect for long-range routes, but do not require the capacity of a twin-aisle aircraft or for that matter an airport that cannot handle a huge aircraft. This would open up new routes for airlines in the market, including the possibility of linking highly favourable routes such as the United States with cities deep in Europe and also linking the longer routes within the Asia-Pacific.

While Airbus has not yet given a price list for the A321XLR, but according to the firm, the aircraft has received a very positive response from airline companies and the number speaks for itself. A total of 48 firm orders and 89 commitments has been reported with the launch at the Paris Air Show 2019, which the company expects to turn into firm orders soon. Additionally, many airline companies including Qantas, JetBlue and Indigo Partners converted a few of their existing A321neo orders to A321XLR. A few of the biggest orders came from American Airlines and Indigo Partners, the private equity firm for many of the low-cost airlines, each of them signed up for Airbus’ new A321XLR. In addition, a total of 112 previously signed aircraft orders from Airbus were upgraded to the newly launched A321XLR. The below table shows the details of the orders and commitments for the A321XLR signed by the airlines and the leasing companies during the launch of the aircraft at the Paris Air Show in 2019.

On the contrary, concerns have been raised about passenger comfort with the A321XLR as there will be a slight setback for business class space, considering the fact that there has been a massive amount of innovation and upgrades in the past years (because of the aircraft being narrow-body) and whether there will be the popular premium economy (considering this is still a narrow-body aircraft and this class is normally for wide-body planes). Some have even raised concerns as to if the cabin pressure in the new XLR might increase the jet lag, while other experts have dismissed this argument. According to an Airbus spokesperson, the A321 series has the widest single-aisle cabin in the market and the economy seats are as wide as economy seats in a wide-body aircraft. So, passengers will have breathing room, even when the flying hours is on the higher side of seven hours. The company has also said that the A321XLR will also include a version of the soothing airspace cabin, which will include jetlag reducing lighting system and larger bins. With all said and seen so far, the A321XLR seems like an amazing new plane, which will be able to serve many novel markets and routes that were previously impractical, especially those between a range of 4500-5500 miles. The two big giants; Airbus and Boeing, mostly had competing aircraft types and category, but this new aircraft is a segment where Boeing has not yet forayed. There are rumours of 797 series with similar functionality form Boeing, which would be a possible competitor for the A321XLR, but nothing concrete has surfaced so far and as such, there has been no timeline on when the series will hit the market or will it even hit the market? While the exact date for the new aircraft to hit the airspace is yet to be confirmed. Airbus’ chief commercial officer said that the ‘extended range versions’ of the A321 would be expected to be delivered in 2023-24.

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