With airlines remaining focused on efficiency, single-aisle jets are at the centre of fleet strategy for several airlines around the globe.
Today, US carrier Jetblue announced it will launch A321LR flights from Boston and New York, to London, UK (without specifying which London airport) in 2021. The airline will join several others, including TAP Air Portugal and Aer Lingus, in using Airbus’ single-aisle flagship as a long-haul jet.
While long-haul is commonly associated with four-engined jets, and perhaps two-deck aircraft, the market demand has shifted to aircraft that are able to fly long-haul sectors, with the efficiencies of a short-haul jet, and a seating capacity of around 210 seats. This ‘sweet spot’ of using a single-aisle jet on routes that are on the short-end of long-haul is known as the Middle of Market, often abbreviated as ‘MoM’.
The need for a ‘MoM’ led Airbus to modify the existing A321 — a single-aisle, and traditionally short-haul aircraft — in order to create the A321LR, a long-range variant that can fly over 4,000 nautical miles when the onboard seating capacity is 206 passengers. Wingtip devices known as ‘Sharklets’ reduce drag and add around 150 nautical miles onto the overall range of the aircraft. Another 350 miles are added by new high-bypass turbofan engines — the latest technology engine for single-aisle jets. The increased fuel load is stored in an additional centre tank, meaning there are three on the A321LR. Azores Airlines, Air Transat among others have firm orders for the jet.
For the airlines, the ‘how to use this jet to maximise profitability’ conversation is incredibly clear to have when discussing the A321LR. Group CEO of Qatar Airways, H.E. Mr Akbar Al Baker (an A321LR customer) told me “We could go to Phuket in low season, also to Krabi, and new destinations to Africa which are thin, intercontinental routes. We could also go to new destinations in Europe where the destination does not really have the volume for a widebody aircraft”
With strong demand for the long-haul variant, and an increase in the number of airlines retiring or removing widebody jets (which consume more fuel) in search for efficiency…Airbus is not clipping its wings with the A321LR.
The European planemaker is in detailed talks with airlines over the price and timing of an even longer-range variant – currently dubbed the A321XLR. Airbus has already pencilled in provisional orders subject to a formal launch which will take place later this year. The manufacturer is likely to announce the launch of the longer range variant of an already long-range jet once it is able to gather around 200+ orders from airline customers.
Airbus claims over 24,000 single-aisle aircraft are required over the next 20 years — and a stretched (in terms of range) version of the A321LR “will be a natural success” according to one source within the company.
The A321XLR is likely to have a higher maximum take-off weight (meaning it can leave the ground heavier) and at least 500 nautical miles more range than the existing 4,000-mile range A321LR. Both the Lufthansa Group, and Air Malta have expressed public interest in the A321XLR.
But is an ‘Extra Long Range’ single-aisle jet as good news for passengers as it is for the airlines? In a recent poll I ran, passengers voted overwhelmingly for widebody jet over single-aisle jet, if given the choice. Many feel that ‘actual’ long haul aircraft — such as the 787, A350 and even the A330 — provide a much-needed sense of space for passengers, regardless of seat pitch/width.
“If you stretch this aircraft more, it will become too uncomfortable for passengers going such long distances in a narrow-body aircraft. We won’t take it” Qatar Airways CEO told me, an exclusive sit-down interview last month.
In Seattle, Boeing is aiming to introduce a similar Middle of Market aircraft, which is expected to launch after the Airbus A321XLR. “It will be a jet that’s able to fly truly long-haul, with similar efficiency of our 737 MAX,” a senior Boeing executive said in a recent roundtable.
However, it’s unclear at this stage if Boeing’s current crisis with the 737 MAX will hinder plans for its Middle of Market aircraft. Since the Ethiopian Airlines 737 MAX crash in mid-March 2019, the worldwide fleet remains grounded following safety concerns of this new Boeing jet. Investigators are focused on a potentially-faulty cockpit software feature known as ‘MCAS’ — which could have incorrectly pitched the aircraft during a critical phase of the flight.