The Case Against The Airbus A321XLR For Delta Air Lines

One narrowbody aircraft that has gotten people talking and tickles the imagination with new possible routes is the Airbus A321XLR. Launched at the Paris Airshow in 2019 and booking over 450 orders, the aircraft has made a splash. However, one prominent Airbus customer, Delta Air Lines, has not yet pulled the trigger on the aircraft. While it is still possible that Delta could order the type, there is a case against the airline ordering the jets.

Delta Airbus A321neo
While Delta has a large Airbus A321neo order book, it has not pulled the trigger on the A321XLR, and it might not need to. Photo: Delta Air Lines

Delta and the Boeing 757

The Airbus A321XLR is arguably a successor to the Boeing 757 on long-haul international routes. Major full-service airlines that have ordered the type are generally planning to put the aircraft to use the aircraft in these markets. For US airlines, like American Airlines and JetBlue, the aircraft is expected to feature prominently in transatlantic schedules.

Looking at American Airlines, the Texas-based airline was an avid user of the 757. The aircraft served long-haul international routes to Iceland, Ireland, and the United Kingdom in Europe and down to Peru, Bolivia, and Brazil in South America in the final year of the type’s operations. This excludes a lot of the domestic flying the airline put the 757 on, including hub-to-hub routes and to destinations farther out like Alaska and Hawaii.

Delta’s Boeing 757s have served admirably abroad. The planes have had a history flying to Iceland, the United Kingdom, and Portugal, among others. However, the carrier has been turning away from long-haul Boeing 757 operations in recent years.

Delta Boeing 757
Delta Air Lines mainly uses the Boeing 757 for domestic operations. Photo: Getty Images

For one, this is because it has relatively few aircraft configured for long-haul international travel. Out of the 111 Boeing 757-200s it flies, only 18 are configured in an international setup with lie-flat seats in the business class cabin, according to data from ch-aviation.com. These premium Boeing 757s have room for 168 passengers. This includes 16 in the lie-flat Delta One cabin in a 2-2 configuration, 44 extra-legroom economy seats, and 108 standard economy seats.

Where Delta has been flying these premium Boeing 757s

While the crisis has shifted how airlines are deploying their aircraft, here is where these jets have been flying in the last few days:

The Case Against The Airbus A321XLR For Delta Air Lines
Delta’s premium Boeing 757s have stayed mostly domestic. Rendering created at Great Circle Mapper

Note that some of these routes are not expected to continue to see premium Boeing 757 operations. Others, like Boston to Los Angeles, are scheduled to continue with premium 757 operations.

The one constant about these routes is that none of them can be operated by an Airbus A321XLR but not an Airbus A321neo. In other words, Delta does not specifically need the Airbus A321XLR to take over the Boeing 757 on any of these routes. If Delta needs a premium configuration, it could fly a small subfleet of A321neos and outfit them with a premium product.

Looking at other Boeing 757, Delta flies the type on some longer routes. This includes Minneapolis to Reykjavik and Detroit to Anchorage. These routes do not see the airline’s premium Boeing 757 operating but instead are flown using domestically configured aircraft that features a recliner-style premium seat. On some routes, this cabin is sold as an international premium economy cabin instead of business class.

DL B757 J
Delta’s lie-flat premium product found onboard a small number of Boeing 757s. Photo: Jay Singh | Simple Flying

Moving away from long-haul narrowbody operations

In general, Delta has been moving away from long-haul narrowbody operations. Several of Delta’s long-haul routes flown with the Boeing 757 have been cut. This includes flights to Malaga, Ponta Delgada, Glasgow, and Shannon.

Other Boeing 757-200 routes have migrated to larger aircraft. For example, Delta’s Lisbon service from New York has moved to a Boeing 767-300ER, as has service to Anchorage and Iceland from New York. While some destinations have been cut, the airline has still offered connecting service via its partners in Europe, namely Air France and KLM.

With a range of 4,000 nautical miles, as advertised by Airbus, the A321neo has an impressive range that can take over many of the longer Boeing 757 routes currently flown by Delta without the need for taking on a longer-haul A321XLR aircraft.

The Case Against The Airbus A321XLR For Delta Air Lines
Delta also has a large Airbus A321ceo fleet that can perform almost every domestic route in the airline’s system, further alleviating the need for a specific narrowbody for long-haul operations. Photo: Delta Air Lines

Widebodies have several distinct advantages over narrowbody jets. First and foremost, Delta can offer more capacity on a widebody Boeing 767 or Airbus A330 than it can on an Airbus A321XLR. Secondly, the products, especially in business class, are far improved on a widebody. For example, Delta’s Airbus A330-900neos feature Delta One Suites, offering passengers a lie-flat bed, doors, and direct aisle access. The premium Boeing 757s only offer a lie-flat seat.

There is still a case for Delta to take on the Airbus A321XLR. Its competitors, American and United, both have orders for the aircraft. If deployed in the transatlantic market, it would set them up to offer more one-stop service to smaller destinations like Malaga, or Glasgow, or Shannon that Delta’s widebodies would be uneconomical for. Then again, some of these destinations are leisure routes with a summer seasonal peak that might not be worth the value of taking on an A321XLR.

Delta A321neo
It is already an Airbus A321ceo operator and an A321neo customer, so adding an Airbus A321XLR would be a natural fleet extension. Photo: Delta Air Lines

Plus, with Delta set to retire the Boeing 767-300ER in four years, the smallest widebody aircraft it will be left with would be the 234-seat Airbus A330-200s, of which it only has 11 aircraft. Slightly larger are the 238-seat Boeing 767-400ERs, but Delta only has 21 of these aircraft. Both types also serve important network roles, including London and Asia, which leaves little room for deploying them on longer, thinner routes.

Nevertheless, there is a reason Delta has not selected the Airbus A321XLR just yet. First, there is little pressing need for Delta to order the jets now. The A321XLR is not expected to enter service until 2023. Since it can already service its Boeing 757 network with other aircraft, the time crunch other airlines have faced with their Boeing 757 fleets is not the same at Delta.

The Case Against The Airbus A321XLR For Delta Air Lines
It still is not immediately clear how Delta will replace the Boeing 767-300ER. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

This leaves Delta room to wait and see what Boeing offers. The planemaker has been working behind the scenes on a new aircraft that could fit into the role of the Boeing 757, but it remains tight-lipped on what the aircraft will actually offer or when it will be up for service. There have been rumors that the aircraft could serve both as a 757 and 767 replacement, which is something Delta would certainly be willing to pull the trigger on, given that there is not yet an ideal 767-300ER replacement on order at Delta.

It still is likely that Delta will take on the Airbus A321XLR at some point. There are several distinct advantages for the aircraft, including serving longer, thinner routes that other aircraft would not be able to run viably. Still, the case for Delta ordering one right now is not as solid as it may seem, especially given its large Airbus A321neo order book that could cover almost all of its Boeing 757s.

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