Qantas’ New Airbus A321XLR Fleet – What We Know So Far

One year ago, Australia’s number one airline, Qantas, announced it was ordering a swathe of Airbus A321 XLR planes for delivery from 2024. It was exciting news, potentially opening up new markets and pumping out further profits for the airline. But a lot has happened in the past year. What’s happening with the future Qantas A321 XLR fleet?

Qantas’ order for 36 A321XLRs remains in place. Photo: Airbus

Qantas A321XLR order remains in place

The airline had announced in May that it was deferring some aircraft deliveries. But that deferral did not include the A321 XLR. So far, these planes are still on track for delivery within the original timeframes. The May announcement deferred three Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners and 18 Airbus A321neos slated to go to Jetstar.

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When Qantas ordered 36 of the A321 XLRs last June, the airline kept its options open regarding what they planned to do with the planes. The order added to an existing Airbus order of twenty-eight A321LRs and forty-five A320neos. The total order presented as a significant refresh of Qantas’ existing single-aisle fleet. Qantas CEO, Alan Joyce, said at the time;

“We’ll take a decision closer to the time about which parts of the Group will use these aircraft, but there is plenty of potential across Qantas and Jetstar. We’ll also take a view on whether they are used to replace older aircraft or whether they are used for growth, which will depend on what’s happening in the market.”

Qantas CEO Alan Joyce had planned to make an announcement about the 737 replacement this year. Photo: Getty Images

A rapidly evolving aviation market

At this point, despite a rapidly evolving aviation market, the A321 XLR order stands. To an extent, this makes sense. The first deliveries are another four years off. A lot of water can go under the bridge between now and then. Like a lot of other airlines, Qantas talks about coming out of the current crisis smaller and leaner. The A321XLR fits nicely into that narrative.

While the big birds like the A380s and Boeing 747s get all the attention, the core of Qantas’ fleet are single-aisle Boeing 737-800s. They may not grace LAX or Heathrow, but they do the bulk of the grunt work around Australia. There are 80 of these Boeings. None of them are getting any younger. While the oldest 737-800s now fly freight, there are over a dozen 737-800s still flying passengers. At least half the 80 planes are over ten years old.

Aging aircraft are not an issue if they are well maintained. There are never any quibbles about the standard of maintenance at Qantas. But the airline is looking to start replacing the 737-800s.

An emerging need to replace aging 737-800s

In November, hairline cracks were found in the pickle forks of three older Qantas 737s, putting the spotlight on the aircraft type. At the time, Alan Joyce said he would decide on the 737’s replacement aircraft sometime this year.

“The replacements are not needed until the end of the next decade, the 2020s, but given how fast aircraft orders are filling up, you need to make a decision, we think, in 2020,” he said.

Whether that announcement will go ahead is anyone’s guess. More likely, it will be indefinitely deferred (like the Project Sunrise decision), and incoming aircraft from existing orders used to replace older aircraft.

That’s a likely future for the A321XLR. While folks were getting excited plotting possible new routes, it’s more likely a new A321XLR will replace a 737-800 on the Brisbane to Sydney run rather than re-opening the now-defunct Qantas Adelaide to Singapore run.

The suitability of the A321XLR to replace the Qantas 737 fleet is uneven. Photo: Qantas

But the capacity of the incoming A321XLRs throws a spanner into the works. They are substantially bigger than the 737-800s. Depending on cabin configuration, the incoming planes can carry up to 244 passengers.

That’s significantly more than the 174 passengers squeezed onto a Qantas 737-800. While the larger plane could work on some domestic sectors during peak times, the A321XLR isn’t going to have the widespread utility that the smaller Boeing does.

That’s why Qantas was eyeballing the A220 last year. It would slot nicely into the skinnier local routes. No official announcement was made, but it was widely tipped to be the aircraft of choice to replace the 737-800. Now, that’s up in the air.

When announcing the A321XLR order last year, Qantas made a big deal about the aircraft’s range and operating efficiencies, saying it opened up new possibilities in Asia.

“It can fly routes like Cairns-Tokyo or Melbourne-Singapore, which existing narrowbodies can’t, and that changes the economics of lots of potential routes into Asia to make them not just physically possible but financially attractive,” said Alan Joyce.

The A321XLR a candidate to replace Qantas A330s

Qantas A330s mostly handle that regional market. There are 28 of them, and they keep busy flying those medium-haul routes into Asia. These planes vary in age from just under eight years to just under 18 years. Qantas has multiple configurations of this aircraft type, but mostly they seat around 250 passengers in a two-class cabin.

The A321XLR is a candidate to replace the Qantas A330s. Photo: Qantas

The A321XLR is an obvious candidate to replace the older A330s. With a range of up to 8,700 kilometers, the aircraft had the legs to fly from Sydney to Tokyo, Melbourne to Hong Kong, or Perth to Bangkok. With the era of the Qantas 747 over, the fate of the A380s uncertain, and the Dreamliners left to ply the long-haul routes, the A321XLR could shape up nicely as a replacement for the A330s as they start to be phased out of the Qantas fleet.

Would the A321XLR fit into Jetstar’s plans?

Then there’s Jetstar, Qantas’ low-cost subsidiary. It flies an all-Airbus fleet around Australia but does send Dreamliners into Asia. The airline is said to be trying to offload several of them, a challenging task in this environment.

The A321XLR could fit nicely into Jetstar’s international operations. It’s comparable in size to the Dreamliners. Those could perhaps go back to Qantas, supplementing its long-haul fleet and further eroding the need for the A380s.

While the Airbus is too big for many of Jetstar’s domestic sectors, it’s certainly an option for some routes – flights to Cairns, those evening flights to Perth and Darwin, Gold Coast in the holidays. There are some choices there.

Would the A321XLR be a good fit for Jetstar, possibly replacing the Dreamliners? Photo: Jetstar

Where to slot these 36 new planes will be keeping some people occupied at Qantas. Because of the A321XLR’s size, it is not a catch-all solution to the aging 737-800s. It is a more obvious candidate to replace the A330s and free up some Dreamliners.

Right now, predicting what will happen is a parlor game. Delivery is still four years away, and a lot can happen between now and then. All we know for sure is that right now, the A321XLR order remains in place and on track.