Airbus has this week completed structural final assembly of the first test aircraft of the A321XLR. Starting from 2023, the A321XLR is expected to enter commercial service with unprecedented extra-long range of up to 4,700nm – 15% more than the A321LR but with the same fuel efficiency.
With this added range, airlines will be able to operate a lower-cost single-aisle aircraft on longer and less heavily travelled routes – many of which can now only be served by larger and less efficient wide-body aircraft. This will enable operators to open new world-wide routes such as India to Europe or China to Australia, as well as further extending the Airbus single-aisle jets portfolio non-stop reach on direct transatlantic flights between continental Europe and the Americas.
For airlines, commonality is key. The A321XLR has been designed to maximise overall commonality with the A321LR and the rest of the A320neo Family meaning flight crew can be certified to fly the aircraft without significant ‘conversation’ training. There are some changes, however, including a new permanent Rear Centre Tank (RCT) for more fuel volume; a modified landing gear for an increased maximum take-off weight (MTOW) of 101 metric tonnes; and an optimised wing trailing-edge flap configuration to preserve the same take-off performance and engine thrust requirements as today’s A321neo. The new optimised RCT holds more fuel than several optional Additional Centre Tanks (ACTs) did previously, while taking up less space in the cargo hold – thus freeing-up underfloor volume for additional cargo and baggage on long range routes.
“For the A321 Family, we have started all the head-of-versions in Hamburg…and it is our intention to build these aircraft also at the other sites,” said A320 programme head Michael Menking. “We are currently on the way to also have the A321XLR delivered out of other single-aisle FALs. So it is important for sure that all the teams learn from the experience in Hamburg so we can bring this knowledge to the other facilities. This is also what we are doing with the A320 Family Airspace cabin, which we started in Hamburg.”
The first A321XLR will next enter its next phase to install its flight-test-instrumentation, followed by the installation of its CFM Leap engines. Engineers will then test the engines, landing gear, door fairings, and other key components of the jet ahead of its first test flight.
The A321XLR has secured dozens of orders. Australia’s Qantas Airways is backing Airbus’ new extended range A321XLR with an agreement covering 36 aircraft. International Airlines Group (IAG) has selected the A321XLR to expand its fleet of highly efficient single aisles with a firm order for 14 aircraft. Of these, eight are destined for Iberia and six for Aer Lingus. IAG, the parent company of major airlines also including British Airways, Level and Vueling, is one of Airbus’s largest customers and this agreement will take the overall order from the group to 530 aircraft. IAG airlines combined operate one of the world’s largest Airbus fleets with over 400 aircraft.
Willie Walsh, former IAG chief executive, said: “The A321XLR has the same unit cost as a widebody longhaul aircraft which will enable profitable network expansion. This will strengthen both Dublin and Madrid hubs providing new transatlantic routes and additional flexibility for connecting passengers. These aircraft will also bring further cost efficiencies and environmental benefits.”
The aircraft will enable Aer Lingus to launch new routes beyond the US East Coast and Canada. For Iberia, this is a new aircraft type that will enable it to operate new transatlantic destinations and increase frequencies in key markets. JetBlue will add the A321XLR, along with American Airlines and United.
Gerd Weber, Head of A320 Family Value Stream Management & FALs points out: “In the final assembly of the A321XLR aircraft, there is not a big variation compared with the other A321 aircraft. The major differences in the -XLR are seen in the ‘pre-FAL’, at section assembly level, where the RCT is installed, for example.”
He adds: “This test aircraft has a partial cabin installed to leave space for all the required flight test equipment. What is also specific for this first A321XLR aircraft is that there is a lot of documentation work to be done, especially for flight test installation, which is very different from our serial process. This requires a special focus by all the teams in closing the documentation and dealing with any discrepancies.”
Elsewhere in aviation, British Airways announced that it would become the first airline to use sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) produced at a commercial scale in the UK.
The company struck a deal with Phillips 66 Ltd, which will produce thousands of tonnes of sustainable jet fuel that the airline will begin to use for commercial flights in early 2022.
“This agreement marks another important step on our journey to net zero carbon emissions and forms part of our commitment, as part of International Airlines Group, to power 10% of flights with SAF by 2030,” British Airways’ chairman and chief executive Sean Doyle said in the announcement. British Airways has pledged to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, and its new deal with Phillips 66 will help it towards this goal, the airline said. SAF can reduce lifecycle carbon emissions by more than 80% compared with traditional jet fuel, and British Airways will purchase enough to reduce its emissions by nearly 100,000 tonnes or to power 700 net zero flights between London and New York on a Boeing 787.
* The author is an aviation analyst. Twitter handle: @AlexInAir