Could The Airbus A321XLR Hurt Boeing NMA’s Potential?

Airbus might be just about to pull the rug out from under Boeing. The Airbus A321XLR is expected to be announced at the Paris Air Show next week, and clearly targets customers who might have bought the Boeing 797.

Low speed turn off take-off of Airbus testbed A321neo at Toulouse. Photo: Wikimedia

This echos a similar scenario to the 2011 Paris Air Show, when Airbus managed to undercut Boeing and secure a massive order of new aircraft from American Airlines. This caused Boeing to return to the drawing board to rebuild the 737 into the MAX we know today.

What is the A321XLR?

The Airbus A321XLR is a special derivative of the Airbus A321neo that has traded passenger capacity for range. It is a comparable aircraft to the Boeing 757 that finished production a decade ago but is still in use by many airlines today.

If we compared the A321XLR to the 797 side by side:

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  • Airbus A321XLR can carry 206 passengers to a range of 5,000 nmi (9,300 km)
  • Boeing 797 can carry up to 270 passengers to a range of 5,000 nmi (9,300 km).

Now, the Boeing 797 has several advantages over the A321XLR, such as a twin-aisle design (allowing quick boarding and disembarkation), 50 more passengers and the fuel-saving technologies that have made the Boeing 787 Dreamliner so successful.

We have compared the Airbus A321XLR vs Boeing 797 previously.

Boeing 797 vs Airbus A321XLR. Photo: Simple Flying

But the A321XLR is available now for airlines to consider, based on a real aircraft that has been proven in the marketplace. It could feasibly be built fairly rapidly, with engineers working on a design apparently only 200 nautical miles away from their goal. The Boeing 797 is more than four or five years away, which in the cutthroat world of aviation is a very long time.

Who is interested in this aircraft so far?

For Boeing, the list of airlines that is interested in the A321XLR is worryingly influential.

IAG, owners of Iberia and British Airways has come out of the gate stating that they are interested in the A321XLR, according to Arabian Business. Additionally, independent airline Jetblue and Indian IndiGo have both said they would consider ordering the aircraft.

But the real prize here is American Airlines. If Airbus can get a major American carrier to place a large order of the aircraft, it would instantly move the new A321XLR onto the must-have miracle aircraft pedestal, shared in the past by aircraft like the Boeing 737 and 747.

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The Boeing 747 was a game changer when it was built. Source: Qantas

Will the A321XLR affect 797 sales?

There is one hiccup with the A321XLR dream… there is not enough Airbus capacity to build the aircraft right now. The only way that an airline could get their hands on the plane before 2024-25 would be if they converted existing A321neo orders into the XLR version.

For American, this would be easy, as they have around 90 A321neo orders still unfulfilled. If they do chomp at the bit, Airbus will slide into the upper hand position in the middle of the market fight.

Let’s not forget that Boeing has its attention divided right now, between the horrible MAX crisis (which the aircraft are still grounded) and the soon-to-be-flown Boeing 777X aircraft. They may have dropped the ball and be unprepared for activities from Airbus at the Paris Air Show next week.

Will this rise from Airbus cause Boeing to scrap 797 plans and return to the drawing board as they did back in 2011? Or are these rumors just ripples in Boeing’s unstoppable wake?

Let us know in the comments what you think!

  1. I think the A321XLR will give Boeing a nasty headache. Although a widebody NMA might offer passengers more comfort, a narrowbody XLR offers an airline greater flexibility, since it can be deployed on a greater variety of routes (including relatively short domestic/regional). It also makes it easier to play with flight frequency (e.g. as a function of high season / low season), and is perfect for thin routes. The XLR may not kill the entire NMA concept, but it may dent it enough to stop NMA from ever being a commercially viable project.
    Even if an airline orders an XLR without converting a previous regular NEO order, the XLR will still probably be delivered earlier than the NMA.

    1. Yep. Add in Airbus’ decision to offer a reduced-range A330-800 to replace aging 767s, and Boeing will most likely have to follow suit with a reduced-range 787-8. A clean-sheet mid-market airplane is too much of a gamble right now.

  2. I think the 797 is going to be hit from both sides; the A321XLR which can effectively be available to some operators immediately by upgrading their existing A321NEO orders, and the A330NEO which can cater for the twin-aisle market by offering a more comfortable option with greater range. The appeal will be limited to a narrow niche of operators, and its only realistic selling point will be any efficiency gains.

    1. Airbus’ plans to modify the A330-800 for lower thrust and MTOW will likely force Boeing to do the same to the 787-8. Both products combined will cannibalize any mid-market widebody demand that exists in the next 10 years. Given the costs associated with a 250-seat widebody, they’re not worth buying at less than 5500 NMI of range. Particularly if the A321 XLR delivers on the advertised 4700 NMI. A widebody won’t have enough flexibility for the cost otherwise.

  3. I think Boeing’s next project should be a replacement for the 737, that could easily cover the lower-end of the NMA’s scope, like Airbus’s A320 program is proving to be with the A321XLR.

    1. There isn’t really a lot of demand for 200+ seat planes on short-medium haul routes, though. Boeing tried to do that with the 757-300 and the 787-3, but neither option was successful. Only Delta, United, and Condor used the 757-300 to a significant extent, and the 787-3 was cancelled due to lack of interest outside of Japan. Single aisle planes with more than 200 seats take extra time to load, deplane, and turn around, so the extra ground time eats away at the benefit of higher capacity. Particularly on short-haul routes where planes already spend more time on the ground each day.

      What’s more likely, I think, is that large regional jets like the A220 will take over the 150-160 seat market. They’re optimized for the most-common short haul routes, so a 160-240 seat NMA could be better optimized toward lower-frequency medium and low long-haul routes. But whenever a NMA is built, it’s probably going to be more like the 767 or A310 than the 737 or A320.

  4. let Boeing build the 797 and forget the 737 MAX…..this the only way to cover all the shame and get back their passenger trust…

    1. They may be looking at it, but that’s not their first choice. United has been pretty vocal in their support for a twin-aisle NMA from Boeing. Unlike American, United only has two east coast hubs, and Newark gets much more TATL traffic than Dulles does. So a twin-aisle plane (mainly to replace 767s) is better suited to United’s current network. That could change if the Silver Line extension makes IAD more attractive as a gateway to Washington – market demand at Dulles is arguably more suited to single-aisle aircraft than to the 787 or A330.

      But since United does not currently operate any A321s and isn’t buying any new Airbus aircraft besides the A350-900, they’re going to lobby Boeing for a twin-aisle solution first. I don’t see UAL ordering the A321 XLR until JetBlue and Delta both announce orders, effectively forcing them to follow suit to stay competitive in the transatlantic NYC market.

  5. Airbus will tinker with the the A320neo for a few years and chip away at Boeing…Boeing needs to resize the 797 and replace the 737..otherwise Airbus will slaughter them..Airbus will then build the A220-500 and eventually replace the A320neo with a successor..NMA is a distraction for Boeing

    1. Boeing is looking to Embraer for new short-haul aircraft, though. And I’m not sure that sizing the 797 to replace the 737-8/-9 and 757 is the right approach – it’s too early to tell how far airlines will take “long and thin” routes. I agree NMA is a distraction in the near term – offering a 787-8 with lower MTOW and thrust would effectively replace 767s in service within a few years. Boeing would likely be better off developing a 787X variant before pushing a clean-sheet aircraft that would go the way of the A310 if released too soon.

  6. American, United and Delta all operate ageing 757’s configured for international routes, and now that JetBlue have announced transatlantic services, Airbus are in a really strong position with the A321XLR with an aircraft that can outperform the 757, open up new routes with the extra range and will be available before Boeing’s NMA. Boeing will have to offer something really special with the NMA to deter US customers from ordering Airbus… Otherwise it’s going to be an expensive investment for Boeing to develop an entire clean-sheet design when the market isn’t large enough to break even, having been bitten away by the A321XLR…

    1. Couldn’t agree more. Boeing will probably have to shelve the 797 (again) and offer a reduced-range version of the 787-8 to replace the 767s still in service. The transatlantic-range market just isn’t big enough for a $15 billion clean-sheet design at this point. Maybe in 2035 it will be, but not in 2025.

  7. OK. Although I know the proposed XLR will have aerodynamic improvements, it still has to carry a ton of extra gas to achieve the range promise. So it will be baggage or cargo limited on long flights, and won’t be that efficient with the extra weight of all that fuel, not to mention cramped seating. If Boeing does 797 right, with the advanced manufacturing techniques that sold the T-X military trainer and quicker twin-aisle turnarounds, plus efficient aerodynamics and minimal maintenance requirements, it will kill the XLR after its initial rush of sales. Plus, I believe many initial XLR sales will be conversions of A321neo orders.

    1. The faster turnarounds are going to be appealing. Is it just me, or have people recently forgot how to board an aircraft. It takes them way to long to stick their bag in the bin and sit down. On a recent flight, I had a purser say over the intercom “. Let’s pretend like we’ve all done this before. Please store your carry on and sit down as quickly as possible.” It was the last flight, and I think she was tired, but I agreed 100%.

      1. A typical A321 XLR would be configured to seat 160-180 passengers, not a full 200-220, which helps with turnaround and capacity somewhat. But yeah, the cargo prospects are still pretty bleak. At least the turnaround time is less of an issue since it will fly 2 or 3 segments in a typical day. It’s true that it won’t be efficient compared to an A320 or 737-8, but the lighter airframe will help it compete favorably with a twin-aisle plane designed for 6000+ NMI.

        Apart from replacing the 200-ish 757s used for thin transatlantic flights, this will have some potential with low-cost carriers. So it’s a niche with some long-term demand. The main advantage to the A321 is it’s a cheap airframe that’s easy to fill, which makes it very flexible for a variety of point-to-point routes. If the majority of the transatlantic market calls for 200-250 seat planes, though, then a twin-aisle 767 replacement could kill it. I’m just not convinced the market will be there in 10 years, though. A 787-8 with reduced thrust and MTOW is probably good enough for now. The MOM is still a niche at this point.

        1. Your forgetting that its also going to be easy to handle at both ends as a320’s are familiar both in terms of maintenance and pilots.

  8. Airbus needs to increase its production in its Mobile,Alabama site.
    I think the A321 XLR will be very successful with American Carriers.

  9. I’m still not convinced by Boeing’s claim that the NMA will be here by 2025. The 777X was first spoken of in 2012, and offered for sale in 2013. It’s halfway through 2019 and the plane (basically new wings and engines on a lengthened existing platform) is already set to be delayed.
    And now they expect they will have a new plane, using new materials, new manufacturing technologies, new engines (which no one has as of yet) and even possibly a new business model (that brings in BGS to counter lower price with after-sales services) built, tested and certified in 5 years? In which universe? the MCU?

    1. Remember what happened with the dreamliner, I’m sure your airbus salesman does, and is going to point out you already have crew for a320’s your maintenance people know them as does every airport in the world.

  10. We are taking about the airbus A321 here, a single aisle aircraft having a pax capacity of up to 240. The only aircraft Boeing has to compete in this bracket is the 737 MAX and all these are grounded. Looking at a 737 alongside an A320-321 the difference in height above the ground is quite apparent, the airbus being able to sling a much larger engine under the wing without the gymnastics Boeing had to use. Now look at a B757 alongside an A321 and the critical under wing clearance is about the same. True, the 757 hasn’t been manufactured for 15 years but the 767 is still being made and there is a great deal of mechanical similarity between the two. In my opinion Boeing should bring the 757 out of mothballs, re engine it, up grade the avionics, and give it an interior refurbishment and then get it on the market pronto. By hanging onto the now discredited 737 max Boeing could find themselves in a situation from which recovery may not be possible.

  11. I agree that the 737 after 50 years in service needs to be replaced. Boeing made the mistake of trying to play catch up with the 320 NEO. They should have designed a new plane. The FAA let Boeing certify it’s own MAX design and the result has been Hundreds of lives being lost. The Boeing CEO says we have to gain trust again in the MAX. What about those Families that have lost loved ones because of an obvious design flaw. These Families in those Countries do not have the funds or legal options to make claims against Boeing. Boeing do not care about who died as they really need this plane to be successful against Airbus. l won’t fly a 737 MAX as i love your Family.

  12. Unless Boeing, Airbus, and all other airframe and engine makers and their suppliers go back to basics and start caring more about aircraft safety than corporate profits, we can expect more aeroplanes falling from the sky.

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