The Airbus A321XLR Vs Boeing 787-8 – Narrowbody vs Widebody

Airlines looking to operate low-density medium-haul routes are spoiled for choice when it comes to choosing aircraft. On one hand, they can choose the narrowbody Airbus A321XLR, a new aircraft that offers a fantastic fuel economy, or the bigger widebody Boeing 787-8 which has more capacity. But which aircraft is best?

Getty 787-8
The Boeing 787-8 or the Airbus A321XLR for medium-haul routes? Photo: Getty

How will we compare the two aircraft?

Naturally, the two aircraft are completely at odds with each other. The Boeing 787-8 is a widebody aircraft designed for the long-haul in mind, whilst the narrowbody Airbus A321XLR originates from a short-haul aircraft design that can now do the distance.

We will make the assumption that we are a national carrier that is looking at medium-haul routes that are low density (such as Boston, USA to Manchester, England) and need an aircraft that’s cheap to operate and makes us the most money. Flexibility for other routes will be considered.

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Let’s begin!

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Passenger capacity

The passenger capacity of each is as follows:

  • Airbus A321XLR can carry 180-220 passengers in a two-class configuration. This includes a business class that might be outfitted with lie-flat seats (a rare example of lie-flat business seats on a narrowbody). The maximum is up to 240 seats in a single class.
  • The Boeing 787-8 is recommended to be outfitted with 242 seats in the same two-class configuration. But the aircraft could have a maximum of 359 onboard in an all-economy configuration.

Looking at the raw numbers we can see that the widebody design of the 787 easily allows a bigger capacity of seats onboard. The minimum outfit of a two-class layout on the 787 is bigger than the maximum all-economy layout on the A321XLR. 

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But in terms of the economics of passengers, the 787 offers more flexibility and more capacity than the A321XLR. Unless the route is particularly light (and even then the 787 could be configured with just 20 more seats), then the 787 is the better choice.

Qatar Airways 787-8 Business Class. Photo: Simple Flying

Lufthansa Group CEO Carsten Spohr seems to think so, saying that the A321XLR is a ‘niche’ aircraft and that it doesn’t have a place in the Lufthansa fleet.

“It just doesn’t feel right to be on a narrowbody for 4.5 hours. The noise, vibrations, the toilets – it’s just not a widebody experience,” he said in a statement published by Runway Girl Network. “It might be a niche product, even for us, but it won’t be a game changer,”

Range

The two aircraft have the following range:

  • Boeing 787-8 – This aircraft has a range of 7,355 nautical miles (13,620 km, 8,463 miles)
  • Airbus A321XLR – This aircraft has a range of 4,700 nautical miles (8,700 km, 5,408 miles)

Again, the Boeing 787-8 leads in range. Despite extra fuel tanks and a more powerful engine thrust, the A321XLR doesn’t stand up against the 787-8.

A321XLR infographic
The A321XLR. Photo: Airbus

Fuel burn

But it is one thing to have a better range and carry more passengers, how do the two aircraft stand up to actual costs to operate?

Let us assume a passenger mix of 220-240 passengers to a range of 3,400 nautical miles (Source).

  • Boeing 787-8 – Averages around 2.68 L/100 km (88 mpg‑US)
  • Airbus A321LR (XLR’s previous model) – Averages around 2.43 L/100 km (97 mpg‑US)

The A321XLR, based on the figures of the A321LR, will average a slightly better MPG than the Boeing 787-8. This is based on the distance of only 3,400 nautical miles, slightly more than Boston to Manchester, and thus the great fuel economy of the 787-8 at cruise doesn’t come much into play.

787-8
The 787-8 is not as efficient as the A321XLR on short distances. Photo: Getty

Cost to buy

Now to bring it all together, which is more expensive?

  • The Boeing 787-8 can be bought for around US$248.3 million (2019), but only costs Boeing around US$100 million to build.
  • The A321XLR can be bought supposedly found around the same prices as the A321neo, at US$129.5 million (2018).

It would not be a stretch (pun intended) to assume that you could buy two A321XLRs for the price of one Boeing 787-8. Even if Boeing massively discounted the price of the 787-8 by 50% like they did to get Hawaiian Airlines to buy it, it is unlikely that they could beat off the price of the A321XLR.

At the end of the day, the 787-8 offers more flexibility for airlines, more comfortable for passengers and may drive more revenue with more seats, however, if the airline is buying the aircraft exclusively for a short-medium route, then the A321XLR is the way to go.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments.

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atlas

XLR is a way to go.
It is ironic that xlr is a small successor of 757, but Boeing didn’t make a Neo version.
Ironically they could make a small 757 and fit there engines from MAX because it has more ground space.
Management of Boeing is making bad decisions for at least 10 years now.

mohave

A composite wing for the A320-321 could be the next step to a state of the art single aisle with CO2 emissions like the A220 and B787. The airbus single aisle seat width is better than the 737, but a more comfortable seat width would need a larger fuselage diameter.

Kundapura

What a ridiculous article. These comparisons are complete nonsense.

VISAKH SUDARSAN

Hey, I guess you forgot about the cabin crew sleeping quarters.

Pingy

Let’s see what airlines think about it: 787-8 – 10 orders in 2019. A321XLR – about 230 orders. The market has spoken.

MICHAEL

Thanks for the article Nic a couple of points…
1. The best aircraft depends so much on the airline and the mission. For example if an airline wanted to test a market they could easily use the xlr as an opener or as in Europe the seasonal side of travel means a wide body could be swapped for an xlr during winter. That same xlr could be used domestically between the long haul routes too. And with more point to point kicking in Qantas is talking about Adelaide to Singapore with the xlr – it would be a long time before a wide body would work on that route.
2. B787 was originally designed to seat a 2-4-2 economy layout the same as A330 but the problem was the awesome economics promised didn’t stack up so it was changed to 3-3-3 per row meaning the seat width shrunk to 17 inches. So which is more comfortable? A321xlr has 18 inch seats so less rubbing shoulders!

david

Forgotten is one element where the 787 add value – cargo capacity

Jamie

I disagree with the comparison.
The likelyhood of filling a 787 daily on that route isn’t high. There is a reason many American airlines are currently sticking with the 757-200 on these routes.

321 would offer better turn around times and lower landing fees. It would also be ideally suited to running domestic routes in the US, where as the 787 isnt really economical in that range.

Caledonia

I disagree with the comparison.
The likelyhood of filling a 787 daily on that route isn’t high. There is a reason many American airlines are currently sticking with the 757-200 on these routes.

321 would offer better turn around times and lower landing fees. It would also be ideally suited to running domestic routes in the US, where as the 787 isnt really economical in that range.

Ken

20 years down the line, widebodies will be “niche” aircrafts for transatlantic traffic.

PHLing

The joy of traveling long haul is to fly on a widebody plane…that's the start to a perfect Eurocation

Stephan

Unlike what Lufthansa Group CEO Carsten Spohr thinks, I much prefer traveling in a single isle aircraft across the Atlantic.

Anonymous

Can’t boeing make a 787-7 or airbus a a322?

Armand2REP

The only thing airlines care about is making money. A321XLR is the clear winner.

Paul Johnson

Let’s see what customers think, I for one can’t think of anything worse than travelling on a glorified easyJet flight across the Atlantic. What happened to feeling that extra bit of excitement of travelling medium/long haul knowing that you would be on a decent sized aircraft. A321 don’t make me laugh…

Gerry S

Love the A321. Like flying in them. But cross Atlantic? Unless you are in business class it would really s**k.

Richard

Airport charges will be much lower for the A321. Seat width in economy is better than on the 787 or 737 max. Norwegian were using the 737 max on transatlantic routes until the grounding. The A321 is working well for Are Lingua transatlantic…

Igor LCT

To get a clear picture, we have to compare all other expences such a maintanance (incl. C and D check), landing and navigation fees, ground handling cost, crew numbers and their sallaries, insurance etc. IMO the XLR should be a winner in such comparison.

David Ramsay

I don’t get how you can say the 787 is a more comfortable aircraft for the passenger. With a 17 inch wide seat in economy the 787 is not a seat I would wish to sit in for more than a short haul flight. Yes cabin pressure and air quality are better hands down. Seat comfort is a big deal especially long haul. You should have brought this out in the article. I agree with most of what you say though I think the 787 is not designed for midrange re: economics. It’s big flaw for me is a seat too narrow for anything but a c. 1hr flight. I learned this from flying it.
In business the 787 is great aircraft for the passenger ,flown it Qatar business and Scoot business (more like premium economy though). Nobody would go to a cinema with narrow seats when next door has proper sized seats for a 2hr show….

Cokesshawn

A321xlr will be used to cross the atlantic ocean,just like 757-200 before

Andy

The 321XLR will dominate transatlantic travel 10 years from now. Routes like Boston to Vienna, Toronto to Casablanca, Philadelphia to Nice, Detroit to Lyon, Chicago to Duesseldorf, Minneapolis to Oslo and Cleveland to Paris. A350s and 787s will be limited to the longer and denser routes. 777-9s, 747s and A380s will be tough or impossible to find.