The Airbus A321XLR Is A Bigger Deal Than You Think

Chapter News | July 02, 2019

Forbes: The Airbus A321XLR Is A Bigger Deal Than You Think

By: Samuel Engel

Read the article about our Councillor member, Airbus, online here. 

It seemed as if there were just two conversations taking place at the Paris Airshow last month:  Airbus' launch of a new long-range aircraft called the A321XLR and Boeing’s slide in the global race to sell competing narrowbodies, stemming from the company’s 737 MAX woes. Many observers hailed the A321XLR as the winner, as the killer app that will affirm Airbus’s purported ascendancy over Boeing.

Nevermind that Boeing secured an order for 200 new 737 MAX jets from British Airways parent IAG, even as the aircraft remains grounded following two deadly crashes last year. Nevermind that Airbus publicly accepted the long-predicted defeat of its $16 billion blunder merely four months ago: the majestic but uneconomic four-engined A380. Airbus and Boeing will both soldier on with ups and downs.

The A321XLR is an even more important aircraft than it might seem. After the next two years of horse races between Airbus and Boeing are long past, after Boeing goes on to deliver thousands of 737 MAX aircraft, after both manufacturers have launched their next products, we will look back at the A321XLR as a generational turning point in the history of aviation. It’s a step that was predictable yet nonetheless remarkable for its impact on the development of global air networks – and the opportunity it creates for smaller airports and smaller cities.

The history of long-haul aviation is one of conquering distance with increasingly flexible aircraft. For many years after the dawn of the jet age, intercontinental flying required large, multi-engine aircraft to go the distance. Through the late 1960s and 1970s, airframe developers followed the bigger-is-better school, investing in massive widebody aircraft like the DC-10, Boeing 747 and Lockheed L1011 Tristar for intercontinental routes.  Carrying close to 400 passengers, these aircraft were designed to serve the global trunk routes. They terminated at a handful of gateways, where passengers would change to smaller aircraft to reach their destination.

As a result, more than 45% of all transatlantic flights landed at just one airport in the US in 1985: New York’s JFK. Similarly to the Pacific, close to 50% of the flights from the US departed from Los Angeles (LAX), Honolulu or Anchorage. The large aircraft needed to fly long-haul made it necessary to concentrate flights on a handful of hubs where connecting traffic could be aggregated.

That changed when Boeing and Airbus launched a new generation of long-range twinjets that were designed to carry closer to 250 passengers. The 767-200 and -300ER, together with Airbus’s A300-600 series, suddenly made it possible to fly long-range routes between cities that did not have as much passenger demand. It also made it possible to go long-haul with just two engines and two pilots, a step-change in efficiency. Within ten years, the number of transatlantic flights had increased by 77%. Of the 1,579 new weekly flights, all but 196, or 88% of them went to cities other than New York. By the summer of 2000, 33 US cities enjoyed direct transatlantic service; British Airways alone served 20 different points in the US.

Whereas the 767 and A300-600 transformed transatlantic service, it took the next evolution of technology to change even longer-distance routes. Boeing broke this barrier with the 787 aircraft, which made it possible to carry 250-300 passengers between almost any two points on earth (the notable exception being Australia). Once again, a longer-range, smaller-gauge aircraft opened up routes that had previously been too small to cover the cost of a daily nonstop flight. Within less than a decade, the 787 was deployed on 46 new routes which had previously not been served nonstop. 

Although some airlines have experimented with long-haul narrowbody flights, much of the world’s long-haul network has continued to require widebodies until recently. (For example, although United operates Boeing’s 757 aircraft on a number of transatlantic routes to Europe, they annoy passengers when they take payload restrictions or require unscheduled fuel stops flying westbound against the strong winter winds).

This is the promise of the Airbus A321XLR: 200 passengers, over 5,000 miles consistently, with economics that rival a widebody. With this aircraft and similar ones that will surely follow, dozens of new routes will become economically viable. For a start, the XLR underpins JetBlue’s planned transatlantic expansion from Boston, opening a low-risk way for a North American airline to enter Europe. In addition, they open the door for American Airlines to serve a number of smaller European cities from its Chicago or Miami hubs.

Like JetBlue, many of the early fans of the XLR are likely to be low cost airlines. Last week, Indigo Partners, parent of Frontier, Wizz, Volarisand JetSMART, signed an MOU for 50 XLRs and Cebu Pacific signed on for another ten. LCCs appreciate the simplicity of expanding long-haul without adding complexity to their fleet, an important consideration for highly seasonal markets like the Atlantic, where it’s valuable to be able to shift capacity to and from other parts of the network.

A quick analysis by my colleagues at ICF has identified over 20 U.S. airports that could make a case for new transatlantic narrowbody service. Most of these airports, like JFK, Boston and Miami, have flights already, but the XLR opens the possibility to serve smaller points in Europe that have historically required a connection, such as Naples, Palerrmo or Hamburg. In other cases, airports that are a little farther away from major cities, like Stewart, north of New York City, or Providence, south of Boston, become candidates for regular service to Europe. (Indeed, Norwegian recently offered service from both these airports before grounding its 737 MAX aircraft).

Much as the first twin-jets and the 787 brought the world to over 50 new routes, the next generation of aircraft technology could open the world again. This time, it will be even smaller cities on both sides of the Atlantic that benefit.