The Rise Of Long Haul Narrowbody Routes

As we enter the new decade, it’s becoming increasingly common to see airlines operating narrowbody aircraft on long haul flights. What’s driving this increase, and how far can the long-haul narrowbody market go?

Icelandair Boeing 757 80 Years Livery
The Boeing 757 has championed the sky as the long-haul narrowbody aircraft for almost 40 years. Photo Minneapolis Spotter via Flickr

Ten years ago

First, let’s look at the last decade. In 2010, long-haul flights were very common and were mostly operated with widebody planes. However, there were a few exceptions to this: the Boeing 757.

Nicknamed the flying pencil for its long length in relation to its width, the 757 is one of the most well-known narrowbodies flying long-haul. According to Delta, the 757-200 can fly up to 3,280 miles.

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It is used by many airlines to fly long-haul, particularly United, Delta and American, who all use their 757s to fly transatlantic operations. Routes such as London to Washington use the 757, as well as select transcontinental routes, including Los Angeles to Boston and New York.

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Another notable user of the aircraft is Icelandair, whose fleet is heavily dominated by the 757, with 25 at the time of writing. Icelandair continues to use the type for flexibility, as it allows it to operate within Europe from Iceland but also to the west coast of the U.S., including Seattle and San Francisco.

Condor Boeing 757-300
The 757 has been used by many airlines on a variety of routings, such as transatlantic flights as well as transcontinental flights. Photo Oliver Holzbauer via Flickr

But even in the last decade, the 757 hasn’t been the exclusive narrowbody operating long-haul. Similar to La Compagnie’s all-business class boutique service from Paris to New York, British Airways operates its own luxury all-business class service out of London’s City Airport to New York with the Airbus A318 – its smallest fleet member.

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Even though the outbound British Airways flight to New York stops in Shannon, the return flight makes the full journey to London City Airport. The small aircraft features only 32 Club World seats and has a range of 3,600 miles according to the airline.

British Airways A318 at London City Airport
British Airways use their smallest fleet member on an all Club World London City to New York service. Photo British Airways

But towards the end of the decade, a new trend was starting thanks to a recently introduced aircraft which has stimulated change in the long-haul air travel scene.

Long-haul travel today

The start of 2020 looks quite different to the start of last year. Airlines have modified their fleets, and some routes are operating in a very different way.

While Qantas has removed its Boeing 747 from American service and British Airways has retired its first-ever Boeing 777, other airlines are changing the way they fly in a different way than may be expected.

The Airbus A321LR has enabled longer routes to be operated on a much smaller aircraft. At six abreast in a typical economy configuration, the airplane is demonstrating how that long-haul flights with low demand can be done without empty seats.

The A321LR currently operates flights for a range of airlines, including the present-day operation for La Compagnie’s boutique Paris to New York service. It is also used on a selection of Hawaiian’s flights to the mainland U.S. and select TAP Air Portugal transatlantic operations.

La Compagnie A321 neo
La Compagnie, a French boutique airline, replaced its all-business class 757s with A321neos for its transatlantic service from Paris to New York. Photo Oliver CABARET via Flickr

The aircraft has enabled airlines to begin operations to smaller cities without much demand from further afield, without the need for a connection. Examples include Dublin to Windsor Locks, Connecticut with Aer Lingus and Montreal to Nice with Air Transat.

This raises many potential opportunities for airlines in the future. It opens more point to point opportunities to low demand city pairs that are currently underserved, making a business case for such routes to operate cost-effectively.

Another benefit of the A321LR is its flexible cabin layout. Airlines can modify the number and location of emergency exits to ensure that they can configure the cabin to their desired layout.

Furthermore, before its grounding, the Boeing 737 MAX completed a number of long-haul routes. These included Norwegian operating to the smaller New York Stewart airport, as well as United’s Houston to Anchorage routes. But the longest flight the aircraft had operated was with GOL between Brazil and Orlando, Florida with a nonstop flight time of just under ten hours.

Air Canada Boeing 737 MAX
Air Canada used its Boeing 737 MAX aircraft on transatlantic routes such as Halifax, Nova Scotia, to London, as well as transcontinental services from Toronto to San Francisco. Photo Liam Allport via Flickr

However, there are more advances to be made with narrowbody aircraft flying long-haul over this new decade.

The future

From 2023, Airbus is due to have produced an even longer-range version of the A321LR – the A321XLR or extra-long range. According to Airbus, this new aircraft would be able to fly 4,700 nautical miles in a two-class configuration. That’s almost the equivalent of flying from London to Las Vegas.

This would open up opportunities for airlines to connect destinations with a small demand with cities that are further away, with the economics of flying a single-aisle aircraft.

How long would you be willing to fly in a single-aisle aircraft? Let us know in the comments!

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Scott Schultz

I think 5-6 hours in a narrowbody jet is about the maximum I would fly. There’s no room to move around like a widebody. You get into those 7-8 hour flights in a narrowbody, it gets to be a bit much. Even in the front of the cabin, I still… Read more »

Frank

Air Baltic fly their A220’s from Riga to Abu Dhabi – a time of just over 6 hours. Sure, they say the aircraft is like flying on a widebody, given the way it was designed, but so much rides on how an airline configures (i.e. spaces) the seats. If an… Read more »

Jim

It’ll be interesting to see if the A220 will eventually be used transatlantic, like eastern Canada to Europe, or even maybe New England to England. That would make feasible even rather low volume routes. How small can you go?

Gerry S

My, how times change. At one time folks were quite happy taking a B707 or DC -8 transatlantic. What was different then besides the fact that seats were bigger and service filler?

Joe

5 hours would be the most I would want to fly on a narrowbody aircraft

Ron

Yeah. I’ve done coast to coast in narrow bodies, and that feels like my limit. When I worked overseas, I avoided the 757 from CDG to RDU and back over a connection in either ATL or JFK, to be on a widebody for the majority of the trip. Ultimately, I… Read more »

Alex Dobson

Boeing missed the plane by ending the 757 program to soon the best narrow body by far by distance and pay load the 737max was always going to fail with larger more powerful engines letting Airbus jump in to steal the market share with the A320/A321 family and a superior… Read more »

Kirky

Backward decisions for long haul? I once flew on a KLM crewed Douglas Super DC8 of PAL Airlines to Bangkok in 1974, the routing was Amsterdam to Frankfurt, Frankfurt to Rome, Rome to Karachi and then the final leg to Bangkok.We did have longer leg room in economy, but that’s… Read more »

Jane McGregor

I would be willing to fly long-haul in a narrow body but in a newer plane and not another airline’s hand-me-down 757.

Roland Freisitzer

Actually, the seat width in a 321 is usually better than in the 3-3-3 Dreamliner. So what would make a 321 long haul flight more than ok (talking about Economy now), would be adequate seat seat pitch. Just flew ANA 789 Vienna-Haneda-Vienna in a B seat (my wife had the… Read more »

Roger Gilodo

I do not like narrow body planes in long routes. I feel more comfortable in wide bodies. I get claustrophobic flying 5-10 hours in a narrow body.

Werner Mayr

Long haul I don’t like single aisle planes
I always check what aircraft is used to cramped

Anonymous

I have flown twice recently on 5 ½-hour narrow body craft (737-800s on both occasions) and have found the narrow, single aisle to be the worst feature, not only uncomfortable to move around but impassable if a serving trollw

Daniel Levinson|dj.levinson@sympatico.ca

The single aisle is not only uncomfortably narrow but, in my opinion, dangerously so. Certainly it is typically impassable, at least on the 737-800s I have recently been on – on two different airlines, if anyone or any thing – trolley, elbows – impede passage.