The Airbus A321XLR Was 2019’s Aviation Gamechanger

The launch of the Airbus A321XLR in June 2019 is likely the most important aircraft development of the year. This long-range version of the narrowbody A320 family has immediately proved very popular with airlines, securing some large orders in just the first few months following its announcement.

Airbus A321XLR aircraft
The Airbus A321XLR. Photo: Airbus

With the Boeing 737 MAX still grounded in 2019, this is a big development in the Boeing versus Airbus competition. This article takes a look at the aircraft, airline orders and why the A321XLR is such an important aviation milestone.

What is the Airbus A321XLR?

The Airbus A321XLR is the extra-long-range variant of the Airbus A320neo family. The A320neo (new engine option) was launched in 2010, designed to be 15 to 20 percent more fuel-efficient than the original A320 family aircraft.

Airbus launched the first long-range variant, the A321LR, in 2015. With auxiliary fuel tanks, this has a range of 7,400 kilometers (4,000 nautical miles), some 930 kilometers more than the A321.

In January 2018, Airbus announced it would take this further and introduce the A321XLR, with the range extended to 8,700 kilometers (equivalent to 4,700 nautical miles). This uses the same wing and engines as the A321LR but is equipped with additional fuel tanks and strengthened landing gear for the increased weight.

A321XLR infographic
Data from Airbus for the A321XLR aircraft. Photo: Airbus

Launched at the Paris Airshow, with orders growing rapidly

The official launch of the Airbus A321XLR was at the Paris Airshow on the 17th of June 2019. Delivery of aircraft is expected to begin in 2023. Middle East Airlines (MEA) was the first customer at the show, placing an order for four aircraft.

Middle East Airlines
Middle East Airlines is the launch customer for the A321XLR. Photo: Middle East Airlines

There have been a surprisingly high number of orders since this launch. These include:

  • Also at the Paris Airshow, American Airlines placed an order for 50 A321XLR aircraft (although 30 of these were converted from a previous order for standard A321neo aircraft). It cites the greater utility of the aircraft for little more investment as the main motivator.
  • Indigo Partners also placed an order for 50 aircraft. These will be split between three of its airlines – Wizz Air, JetSmart and Frontier.
  • IAG placed an order for 14 aircraft, to be split eight for Iberia and six for Aer Lingus.
  • Qantas was also quick of the mark at the Paris Air Show, placing an order for 36 A321XLR aircraft, as well as 28 A321LR aircraft.
  • In Asia, low-cost airline AirAsia placed an order for 30 aircraft.
AirAsia A320
AirAsia will add the A321XLR to its all-Airbus fleet. Photo: AirAsia
  • US low-cost airline JetBlue placed an order for 13 aircraft.
  • At the Dubai Airshow, Air Arabia placed an order for 20 Airbus A321XLR, as part of a larger order with Airbus for 120 aircraft.
  • Also, at the Dubai Airshow, Saudi Arabian low-cost airline flynas placed an order for 10 A321XLR aircraft.
  • In December 2019, United announced a new order for 50 new A321XLR aircraft. This becomes the largest entirely new order (it matches American’s but these include conversions). It also interestingly marks a move away from a Boeing heavy fleet for United.
United A321XLR
United has ordered 50 A321XLR aircraft. Photo: Airbus
  • And also in December, Chile’s low-cost carrier, SKY, announced an order for 10 aircraft, planned to help expand their international routes.
  • The most recent announcement followed from Air Malta, planning to introduce two A321XLR aircraft by 2024.

So, what has made this new aircraft so popular, so quickly?

The Airbus A321XLR offers something different to other aircraft on the market currently – a lower capacity narrowbody aircraft with a long range. This fits the operating characteristics of many airlines. It gives them the flexibility to fly medium or long haul routes, but potentially to smaller airports (with lower demand or lacking the infrastructure to handle widebody aircraft).

Opening up new routes is likely a major reason behind many airline’s investments. American Airlines, for example, will be able to reach many European cities from its east coast US hubs. Low-cost airlines, such as Air Asia, Wizzair and JetBlue, will be able to add longer flights to their networks without having to introduce long haul aircraft.

Another airline that we think could benefit well from the A321XLR is Icelandair. The aircraft could open up new route options for lower-demand routes.

A turning point in aviation

Long haul aviation has seen many changes over the past years. One of the first milestones was the introduction of the Boeing 747 in 1970, and other similar, large capacity, heavy aircraft. These opened up many direct long haul routes and changed the economics of flying.

Pan Am 747
Pan Am first flew the Boeing 747 in 1970, a true gamechanger in long haul aviation. Could the A321XLR mark a similar milestone? Photo: Piergiuliano Chesi via Wikimedia

Developments since then have since lower capacity aircraft open up more long haul routes. And the increasing ability of twinjet rather than four-engine quad jet aircraft to operate long haul, as their range has been extended under ETOPS ratings.

The introduction of the Airbus A321XLR marks another major change in long haul flying. Serving longer routes with a narrowbody aircraft will likely again change the market, and operating economics, for many airlines. Of course, it is still several years before we will see the aircraft enter service (and by then there will likely be more developments on the market). But we think 2019 will likely be remembered as a key long haul milestone.