By Alex Macheras
With airlines remaining focused on efficiency, single-aisle jets are at the centre of fleet plans for several airlines around the globe. The market is demanding aircraft that are able to fly longer, with the efficiencies of a short haul jet, and with a seating capacity of around 210 seats — a ‘sweet spot’ between short-haul and long-haul, known as the Middle of Market, or ‘MoM’.
It’s why Airbus modified the existing A321 — a single-aisle, and traditionally short-haul aircraft — to create the A321LR, a long-range variant that can fly over 4,000 nautical miles when the onboard seating capacity is 206 passengers. Wing tip devices known as ‘Sharklets’ reduce drag, and add around 150 nautical miles onto the overall range of the aircraft. Another 350 miles is 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. TAP Air Portugal, Aer Lingus and Air Transat are all confirmed customers of the new jet. For the airlines, the ‘how to use this jet to maximise profitability’ is clear with the A321LR. Group CEO of Qatar Airways, HE 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 wide body aircraft”.
With a strong demand for such a jet, and an increase in the amount of airlines moving away from widebody jets (which consume more fuel) in search for efficiency…Airbus is not clipping its wings with the A321LR.
The European plane maker is in detailed talks with airlines over the price and timing of the longer-range design – currently known as A321XLR. In fact, Airbus has already pencilled in some provisional orders subject to a formal launch 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 250 orders from airline customers worldwide.
The A321XLR is likely to have a higher maximum take-off weight (meaning it can leave the ground heavier) and 500 nautical miles more range than the 4,000-mile A321LR.
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, even when the seat pitch and width is identical to that of a longer-range single aisle jet. “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 Boeing source told me.
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, take off.
* The author is an aviation analyst. Twitter handle: @AlexInAir
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