The upcoming A321XLR is a real gamechanger. It will expand the possibilities of the narrowbody with a range significantly ahead of its rivals and bring in a new era for passengers. There are many exciting things worth knowing about this new aircraft – here are 10 to get you started.
1. It is a narrowbody with an incredible range
The A321XLR is a single-aisle, narrowbody aircraft with a typical two-class capacity of 180-200. But it pushes the range to the highest of any narrowbody – up of 8,700 kilometers (4,700 NM).
To put this into context, the standard A321neo has a range of just under 6,000 kilometers. And the 737 MAX 8 reaches 6,570 kilometers. It is still a long way behind much larger widebodies. The A350-900 offers a range of up to 15,000 kilometers. But it is enough to make a big difference to narrowbody options.
2. It should enter service in 2023
There have been delays in aircraft production and deliveries during 2020 and 2021. The A321XLR so far seems to be getting through with minimal damage, though. It remains on course for first delivery in 2023.
In February 2021, Airbus confirmed it was preparing to start the main assembly of the first test aircraft. This is taking place in Hamburg, with a pilot production line in the area that previously handled assembly of front and rear fuselage sections of the A380.
Full-scale mockups of some parts of assembly were in place by April 2021. Component assembly will take place at various Airbus facilities across the UK, Germany, and France.
3. Opens up longer routes to lower capacity aircraft
This is why there has been so much excitement over the A321XLR. It offers new possibilities for efficient, narrowbody flying.
With several large orders from US carriers, there are many options from routes there, both transatlantic and within the Americas. JetBlue will use it for New York to London flights, but other European cities could also be used. Transcontinental, Hawaii, and Alaska services are also possible, as are routes to much of South America, including Santiago or Buenos Aires from the Southern US.
European operators can reach the Middle East and Indian destinations. And from the Middle East, much of Europe, Asia, and Africa are possible. Air Arabia has an order for 20 aircraft, and Wizz Air plans to deploy its A321XLR’s in Abu Dhabi.
And in Asia, transpacific routes are possible too. From Tokyo, it could reach Vancouver, Seattle, or San Francisco. But internal Pacific routes are more likely – from Tokyo, it could reach India, Indonesia, and Australia, as well as all of China, of course.
4. It is part of the A320 family – based on the A321neo
The A321XLR is not a new clean-sheet design (like the A350XWB is). It is the next development within the long-running A320 family. Importantly, this brings commonality for operators. Airbus has continually adapted and upgraded the A320 since its launch in 1988. Boeing has, of course, done to same with the 737 family.
The neo (new engine option) was the first major upgrade, entering service in 2016. It added new engines and aerodynamic improvements but maintained commonality.
Further improvements have since followed within the A321neo family. The A321LR launched in 2015, with additional fuel tanks increasing range to 7,400 kilometers. This is already capable of transatlantic routes and will be used by JetBlue for its upcoming service to London, with an exciting new Mint business class cabin.
The main current A321LR operators include TAP Air Portugal (the largest yet, with nine aircraft and three more on order), Arkia (it was the launch customer), Aer Lingus, Air Astana, and Air Transat. SAS, Air Arabia, La Compagnie, Titan Airways, Viva Aerobus, Air Azores Air Busna, Gulf Air, and Ural Airlines also all have small fleets of one or two aircraft.
The A321XLR will take the neo capabilities even further, with larger additional fuel tanks and strengthened landing gear for the increased weight.
5. It makes a great post COVID-19 choice for airlines
The A321LR and A321XLR have been popular since their launch. But as we emerge from the pandemic, it is likely that lower capacity, high range aircraft will be the preferred option for many airlines. The ability to operate lower capacity point-to-point flights will serve airlines well.
Large quadjets have, of course, suffered the most. The 747 has seen early retirement from many airlines, and the A380 has sat idle for much of 2020 and 2021. Smaller aircraft have returned to service much faster – take a look at the A220’s bounceback, for example.
6. It already has over 450 orders from over 20 airlines
The A321XLR was launched at the Paris Airshow in 2019, and by mid-2020, Airbus had built up over 450 orders from 22 airlines and two leasing companies. Deliveries are due to start from 2023, and we may see a few changes as airlines emerge from the slowdown in 2020 and 2021, but it remains popular. It is worth noting that these were not all new aircraft orders. Many airlines switched existing A320neo family orders over to the new A321XLR model.
US airlines have the largest orders, but interest is spread globally. In the US, we have American Airlines, United Airlines, Frontier, and JetBlue, all with sizeable orders.
In Europe, Wizz Air has 20 aircraft on order, Iberia has eights, Aer Lingus six, and Czech Airlines has seven.
Asian low-cost operator AirAsia X has 30 aircraft on order, Vietnamese airline VietJet has 15 (and is planning to operate the type to Australia).
In South America, it is once again low-cost airlines that have shown initial interest. Santiago-based low-cost carrier SKY Airline has ordered ten A321XLRs, and JetSMART has ordered 13.
And there has been plenty of interest in the Middle East, with its promising location for the A321XLR range. Air Arabia has the largest order for 20 aircraft, but there are orders from Flynas and Lebanon’s Middle East Airlines. And Wizz Air will likely deploy aircraft in Abu Dhabi.
7. American Airlines and United Airlines will operate the largest fleets
Both airlines have long operated Boeing 757 fleets, and the A321XLR will to some extent, act as replacements here. We are likely to see the operating the same type of lower capacity, international routes that the 757 picked up. For United Airlines, this will likely be focussed on transatlantic routes from hubs at Newark/New York and Washington Dulles. American Airlines will likely also focus on transatlantic as well as South American routes.
8. It has additional fuel tanks
The extra range of the A321XLR is achieved with additional fuel tank storage. The A321LR also achieved this with several additional center tanks, but the A321XLR goes much further with a newly designed rear center tank (or RCT). The RCT sits behind the main landing gear bay and can hold up to 12,900 liters of fuel (giving the aircraft 40,000 liters capacity in total).
German company Premium Aerotec builds it, and the first tank was completed in May 2021. The design maximizes the use of the lower fuselage but still allows capacity for cargo and baggage. Additional safety requirements will likely be imposed around fire protection.
Another crucial re-designed component is the center wing box. This has required over 200 modifications for the A321XLR to support the additional weight and fuel lines for the RCT. Airbus completed the first box in April 2021.
9. Boeing does not yet offer a competitor – but it likely will
Several airlines are using the A321XLR as a replacement for the Boeing 757. This occupied a niche area in medium capacity, longer-range routes. There have been discussions since 2015 about Boeing developing a new aircraft, seen as a replacement for the 757 but most likely a widebody aircraft. This so-called New Midsize Aircraft (NMA), also dubbed the 797, was never officially launched, and Boeing dropped the project in January 2020.
Several factors led to the cancellation. Boeing had ongoing issues with the 737 MAX, taking time and finance away from other projects. And the A321XLR played a part too. With Airbus launching this before Boeing confirmed any NMA plans, it took potential orders away from Boeing.
Boeing is left with a gap between the top end offered by the 737 MAX and the smallest 787. It is, of course, very likely it will develop a new option in this market to compete with the A321XLR. But it is not yet clear what, with CEO David Calhoun explaining that he wanted to understand both narrowbody and widebody options.
We could see a new narrowbody built on the success of the 737 MAX but with a new design. A re-engined update to the 757 or 767 is possible, and both have been rumored before (as a 757 MAX or a 767X). Or we could see a return to the originally proposed smaller 787-3, with the 787 series improvements and new production line in place.
10. Crew and passengers will miss the space
We will end with an unfortunate but realistic consequence of long-haul narrowbody flying. The A321XLR cannot offer the same space or cabin facilities that larger widebodies do. The extra space on the largest aircraft has seen the introduction of bars, lounges, and even showers for premium classes. We won’t see any of that on the A321XLR. Just simple things, such as less space in the galleys and by toilets, will become very noticeable on longer flights.
Some airlines may still install good business class products, especially if they intend to market flagship, or particularly long, routes. American Airlines and United Airlines have not confirmed cabins yet, but American has hinted that business class would feature lie-flat seats. And JetBlue will likely offer its Mint business class, as it is with the A321LR. STELIA Aerospace is also designing another new version of narrowbody business seating.
Both the FAA and EASA have regulations for crew rests. But for the flight lengths for the A321XLR, airlines can most likely avoid this. We may see some blocked seats on longer flights, but not much more.
The A321XLR could change a lot about how we fly currently. Are you looking forward to the new possibilities, or would you prefer widebodies for longer flights? Let us your thoughts about this, and the wider possibilities and adoption, of the A321XLR in the comments.