In the heart of Central Asia, the sun rises over Nur-Sultan (Kazakhstan’s recently renamed capital city, formerly known as ‘Astana’). Air Astana’s first A321LR gently touches down at the city’s main airport — marking the beginning of a new, more fuel-efficient era for the flag carrier’s long-haul operations.
The A321LR is the Airbus single-aisle aircraft working to secure a position as the ‘MoM’ – the ‘middle of the market’ jet, an aircraft that can operate medium to long haul routes, with the narrow-body economics.
The A321LR first entered service in late-2018 with launch customer Arkia Airlines, a small Israeli airline based in Tel Aviv.
It’s certainly a capable jet. Not only is the A321LR is the largest and heaviest member of the A320 family, but it’s able to fly more than 4,000 nautical miles nonstop, such as from Paris (CDG) to New York (JFK), for example. But the ‘4,000 nautical miles nonstop’ is based on the weight of an onboard seating capacity of 206 seats — meaning Air Astana’s aircraft, which has just 166 seats onboard, has a range of approximately 4,400 nautical miles.
The A321LR is currently the long-range variant of the A321neo, at least until the world’s first A321XLR enters service, an ‘extra-long-range’ variant, due to be delivered to airline customers including Qantas and American Airlines over the coming years.
In an exclusive interview with Aviation Analyst, Peter Foster – President and CEO of Air Astana explained: “It’s quite possible that we will convert an order to A321XLR. At this point in time we don’t need the range, but that may change, and that’s why will consider the XLR”
The aircraft has just 166 seats onboard — a light load, considering this aircraft can accommodate 240 seats. There are 16 Business Class seats and 150 Economy Class seats. The upcoming stream of A321LRs due to be delivered to the Kazakhstani carrier will soon replace the airlines’ ageing (but very well kept) Boeing 757 aircraft, which also have 166 seats onboard.
Air Astana’s Business Class cabin compromises of 5 x rows of an industry favourite seat model: the Thompson ‘Vantage’ seat.
Given the size of the seat, the seating configuration alternates between 2-2, and 1-1, meaning Air Astana’s A321LR has the so-called ‘throne’ seat. The cabin interior is warm, with grey and burgundy tones, along with various hints of local Kazakh designs.
The seat has various storage options, power points, USB ports, and a flat bed length of around 78 inches.
“We do not believe there will be an A321LR with a similar level of product excellence for some time. This is the best narrow-body premium product in the skies today. It’s already exceeding expectations” Peter Foster, President and CEO of Air Astana proudly tells me, pointing at the new luxury cabin.
With the mood lighting switched on, the feeling of airiness is enhanced. There’s an overwhelming feeling that this aircraft is more wide-body in feeling than narrow-body.
The entire cabin is equipped with a Zodiac (RAVE) in-flight entertainment system, which already features on a variety of airline jets, including Philippine Airlines A350 XWB and A321neo.
With 150 seats in Economy Class, the cabin is perfectly adequate for comfortable long-haul operations. The Recaro seats offer around 33 inches in seat pitch, with a standard 18 inch seat width. There are foldable headrests, and large seat-back inflight entertainment screens.
Airbus’ latest generation of overhead lockers feature in Air Astana’s A321LR cabin, meaning more room for hand luggage, and more headspace in the cabin thanks to the curved, drop-down design.
Three lavatories are located at the rear of the aircraft, two smaller ‘Space-Flex’ lavatories on the right, and one standard size lavatory on the left.
A new aircraft presents a route network expansion opportunity for Air Astana, and Foster explained the airline is already assessing a variety of destinations, including Shanghai, Singapore, Mumbai, Tokyo, Jeddah, Medina, and Prague.
Sitting in a conference room at the airlines’ headquarters, I tell Foster of how I perceive Air Astana to be somewhat of a ‘rare breed’ of an airline, given that it’s a profitable, stand-alone, private company, flag carrier offering high-quality service, that isn’t a member of an alliance. Foster laughs and agrees, “profitable being the most important part.” But the last two years haven’t been completely clear skies for the Kazakhstani airline, as Air Astana has been affected by Airbus supply chain issues, and Pratt and Whitney’s (almost never-ending) geared-turbofan engine problems.
Like the other A320neo jets in the airlines’ fleet, Air Astana’s A321LR is powered by two Pratt & Whitney PW1000G engines, an engine type that has been plagued by ‘teething problems’ since entry-into-service. In an exclusive interview with Aviation Analyst, Foster explained: “We’ve had a bad experience because we’ve had so many aircraft changes. It’s been an extreme problem for us. It’s caused us huge amounts of disruption, it’s delayed our entire development plan. Of course, we’re very disappointed.”
Air Astana has already undertaken 23 engine changes on all of its existing A320neo fleet, compromising of 3 x A320neo, and 3 x A321neo jets, excluding the A321LR. There have also been four occasions where the airlines’ A320neo jets have had to divert back to the departure airport due to engine trouble, meaning Air Astana know only too well how problematic Pratt & Whitney’s GTF engine can be.
Foster added “We continue to discuss compensation with both Pratt and Whitney, and Airbus. The disruption we have faced goes way beyond as to what we would regard as ‘teething problems’ in the industry”
For passengers, Air Astana’s A321LR is modern, comfortable and should ease the concerns of any travellers doubting comfort levels of a single-aisle aircraft on a long-haul route. In fact, this aircraft is a benchmark of comfort levels for the A321LR. For now, the aircraft will fly between Nur-Sultan & Almaty — Moscow. However, the aircraft will eventually be deployed on European routes (specifically those currently served by Boeing 757), including Frankfurt, and London, as well as Asian routes to Kuala Lumpur, and Bangkok.