Why Did Airbus Build The A321?

The Airbus A321 is a favorite of many airlines when it comes to short to medium-haul operations. The original model of the narrowbody was introduced back in 1994, and the type has gone on to hold a significant presence in the skies ever since. Here is a look at why it exists in the first place.

Airbus A321ceo
The Airbus A321 has remained a popular choice for operators for three decades. Photo: Airbus

Continental needs

To understand why the A321 was built, we need to take a look at why the A320 family was created. At the turn of the 1980s, options were limited for a European single-aisle, twin-jet aircraft suitable for travel across the continent.

Governments initially looked at other firms to take on the task of challenging the US’ 737. However, several companies faced issues during the design process, and a consortium of Airbus suppliers was consulted.

These institutions formed the Joint European Transport program and wanted to build a new single-aisle jet that could carry 163 passengers onboard. Three concepts were developed, ranging from 130 to 188 seats.

Nonetheless, Airbus soon took on the project to create three designs based on these concepts. The blueprints were initially called the SA1, SA2, and SA3, which would become the basis of the A319, A320, and A321.

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Expanding on previous feats

The manufacturer was eager to capitalize on innovations achieved with the A300 family, which saw the introduction of electrical signaling on secondary flight controls. Additionally, the company wanted to replace the web of cables and pulleys in a plane’s flight control system.

Airbus A300
Airbus broke ground with the A300 widebody aircraft after its introduction in 1974. Photo: Airbus

Therefore, it introduced a computer-controlled digital fly-by-wire system. Flight control surfaces were now linking with computers that made the jet respond as the pilot commanded. Furthermore, the company built a simple sidestick control, instead of the previous pilot’s control column.

Ultimately, these fly-by-wire controls brought better handling, enhanced safety, reduced weight, and operational solidarity. They are now standard in commercial aircraft.

The A320 family is Airbus’ most successful project when it comes to sales. Through the end of February 2020, there have been 15,522 orders for planes belonging to the group, compared with 15,156 orders for all versions of the Boeing 737. However, the European model is 20 years younger than its American counterpart.

Flight Global shared that the initial A320s were built as low-gross-weight -100 variants. However, Airbus swiftly introduced the ramped up -200 edition. This plane had wingtip fences, a wing center-section fuel tank, and a higher maximum take-off weight. Subsequently, these attributes boosted its maximum range to 5,300km (2,865nm).

All generations and variants of the Airbus A321 are popular with carriers across the globe. Photo: Airbus

Built with a purpose

Altogether, the A321’s development didn’t occur on the back of the A320. It was actually being designed before the latter was even introduced.

The A321 was an extended version of its sibling and was viewed to be a rival to the Boeing 757. It was built with a 6.94m fuselage stretch to the original airframe. One 4.27m section was located in front of the wing, and another 2.67m section was behind it.

According to Flight Global, former Airbus vice president of strategic planning, Adam Brown said the following about the design process of the plane’s wing.

“There was a big internal debate about what we should do with the [A321’s] wing – did we make it bigger to counteract the increased weight and provide better performance, but at extra cost, or did we leave it alone? In the end we took the minimum-change route.”

There was a groundbreaking moment with the development of the A321. It was the first Airbus jet to receive funding from the commercial market. The firm launched a bond campaign in June 1991, which provided a significant chunk of the estimated $480 million needed.

Entering service

Subsequently, the 185-seat A321 performed its first test flight on March 11th, 1993, under V2530 power. After that, Lufthansa, the first customer of the A321-100, received its initial order on January 27th, 1994. Additionally, a few months later, Alitalia received the first of its six units on March 22nd.

Airbus A321 test
The Airbus A321 performing its test flight in Toulouse in March 1993. Photo: Getty Images

Lufthansa’s debut A321 was nicknamed Finkenwerder and was introduced with registration D-AIRA. In fact, this very plane remains part of the airline’s fleet today. The German outfit took on its first 20 units between 1994 and 1998.

Altogether, the key feature that Airbus highlights with the A321 is that it has the longest fuselage of the A320 family. The company also states that it offers the best seat-mile costs of any single-aisle jet.

Therefore, it undoubtedly meets the demands of carriers trying to be more cost-effective with their operations. The A321ceo can today fit between 170 and 200 passengers in a standard two-class cabin. Meanwhile, an A320ceo can typically fit 140 to 170 travelers.

Keeping up with the market

The success of the jet and its siblings subsequently led to the launch of the A320neo family range last decade. This introduction saw an expansion in seating capacity, bringing maximum capacity to 244 seats. The company also launched the A321LR two years ago, which has 15 percent more range than the standard neo variant.

Furthermore, Airbus is preparing to deliver the A321XLR in 2023, which it says will bring 30 percent lower fuel burn per seat than previous-generation competitor models and 15 percent greater range than the A321LR.

United A321XLR
The A321XLR will add even more range to the A321 series. Photo: Airbus

Altogether, the A321 has proven to be an aviation success and shows no sign of slowing down. The plane’s designers saw early on that there was a need for an extended version of the A320. The aircraft offers the perfect balance of range and capacity for short to medium-haul services. Therefore, it is no surprise that so many operators snapped it up over the last three decades.

What are your thoughts on the Airbus A321? Do you have any fond memories while traveling on the plane over the years? Let us know what you think of the jet in the comment section.