The A321XLR Could Change The Shape Of Long Haul Flying Forever

The rise of the long-haul narrowbody is set to get hotter as the A321XLR nears entry into service. Executive Chairman of Air Lease Corporation (ALC) Steve Udvar-Hazy believes that, should the model be a success, it could see airlines downgauging more services for increased flexibility.

Udvar-Hazy believes the A321XLR could fundamentally change the long-haul market. Image: Airbus

Big is no longer beautiful

The events of 2020 have seen the rapid demise of the world’s biggest widebodies. As airlines phase out their biggest planes at the top, the market remains strong for the capable long-range narrowbody at the other end. Speaking at CAPA Live yesterday, Executive Chairman of Air Lease Corporation (ALC) Steve Udvar-Hazy noted how the market has changed in the recent past. He said,

“The widebody situation has changed a lot. For a while there was this fear in the airline industry … that at major international hub airports like Heathrow, Charles de Gaulle, Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Tokyo, and so forth, there would be slot restrictions. And the only way an airline can grow is to have a larger gauge at each departure. That led to the A380, the 747-8 – big was the way to go.”

He noted that, now, the pendulum has somewhat swung the other way. Airlines are now seeking more flexibility, easier to fill aircraft and more economical operations. While he noted that it remains to be seen how long this trend continues, for now, it’s a boon for smaller widebodies like the 787, but, he said, “…it’s certainly been a setback for Airbus and also for the 777X.”

Aer Lingus A321LR
ALC has bet heavily on the long-haul narrowbody market with significant orders at Airbus. Photo: Airbus

ALC has some 400 orders in with aircraft manufacturers. Of those, the vast majority are narrowbodies, with less than 30 widebody orders in place. It’s a sign of the times that a major lessor like ALC has less faith in the future demand for widebodies, and conversely its focus on new generation narrowbody aircraft.

The XLR could change everything

ALC has bet big on the Airbus narrowbody development. While it still has outstanding orders for eight more A320neo from its 28-plane order, its orderbook for the A321neo is substantial. To date, the lessor has ordered 182 of the large narrowbody aircraft, with 126 of those still to be delivered. At least 27 of those will be the forthcoming A321XLR.

Udvar-Hazy noted that the future of long-haul flying could be changed forever if aircraft like the XLR prove to be a success. He said,

“If those airplanes catch on and can operate more of these sectors that are near six, seven, eight hours, and operate maybe higher frequencies with a more flexible schedule compared to a widebody, that will change the whole pattern of what’s going on, for example, in the North Atlantic, between the US and Latin America, between Europe and parts of Africa and intra-Asia.”

The XLR still has to prove its worth, but it’s a plane full of potential. Photo: Airbus

The XLR won’t begin entering service until 2023, but Udvar-Hazy believes it could see a seismic shift in long-haul operations. While noting that it is yet to prove itself in the real world, he said,

“If they [the A321LR and A321XLR] prove to be successful, it does mean that some airlines will downgauge and reduce their risk.”

ALC has plenty of experience in the long-haul narrowbody market. It introduced the A321LR for Aer Lingus, which the airline substituted the A330 with on its transatlantic routes. SAS recently took its first A321LR from ALC, which it will fly to Boston from Copenhagen and could launch routes like Stockholm to New York with the same. The ALC boss believes the LR and the XLR are set to be great planes, with little competition, that could become the firm favourite for some longer routes. He said,

“Particularly in the wintertime, in the off season, it’s a good airplane that fills the mission. So, I think we’re going to see more of this … Boeing doesn’t really have a product that can compete with that right now, so it’s an interesting market between the single aisle and the widebodies.”

What do you think about the future of the A321XLR? Will it change the long-haul market for good? Let us know in the comments.