Airbus has done what analysts have been expecting for the past few months; announce a version of the A321 with the ability to fly a greatly extended range and finally match (and exceed) the capabilities of a Boeing 757-200 with winglets.
The 97-ton maximum weight will be achieved by the addition of a fuel tank in the forward baggage compartment and some fairly low-cost reengineering of the wing. Air Lease Corporation is the launch customer, with a memorandum of understanding for thirty frames. They have not, yet, stated where these aircraft will be placed.
To achieve a 4000-nm range, Airbus has envisioned a configuration carrying 206 passengers (16J and 190Y). They have also stated that, due to the extra fuel tank and limitations of the design, it is unlikely for this aircraft to be able to carry much cargo. This may, immediately, appear as a source of consternation if your airline relies on flying long sorties on narrow-bodies full of fresh fish. Otherwise, is it really a big deal? I would say no.
There is a lot of surplus belly freight capacity in the world right now. Some say that there is such a surplus that the global belly-freight load factor is around 40%. Freight is also connection-agnostic. Will a lack of belly freight on routes served at the edge of the capability of the A321LR break routes currently served by a 757 with winglets? Not likely.
The simple difference in structural rates and heretofore unknown improvements in the Pratt & Whitney Geared Turbofan will reduce the trip costs significantly – removing the need for revenue from cargo, which can connect onto one of the many wide-bodies out of larger airports served by the same airlines.
There is one more quibble with the marketing. I highly doubt that we will see 206-passenger configured A321LRs. That foresees a business class with a pitch of 36″. Given that airlines need to remain competitive, we can assume that there will be lie-flat seats in the premium cabin. With the space those take up, I would imagine a seat count of 160-180 would be more realistic.
Regardless of seating capacity, Airbus sees a market for at least 400 97-ton payload A321s.
Any airline that currently operates 757s on long stage lengths could easily purchase these upgraded Airbuses.
So for fun, I’ve used Great Circle Mapper to make some fantasy maps. If you were Delta, American, or United (yes, I know their New York-area hub is EWR) this is what kind of operation the A321LR would allow you to operate. This aircraft may also finally push certain lower-cost airlines to diversify their market and thrust across the seas.
Note: all maps are still-air range. Realistically speaking, there are headwinds to fight and airspace considerations to route around. Real-world operational range will probably be closer to 3,600-nm.
The good thing about maps is that the reciprocal also holds true. Notice how all of Scandinavia is within the highlighted area of the mercator projection. Airlines like SAS could utilize the A321LR on more point-to-point flying into North America.
The North and South American carriers also have the luxury of using this aircraft to expand deeper into South America with an even smaller aircraft. From Miami, all the South American capitals are in reach.
Another use-case being thrown about on the aviation internet is that of it being useful for point-to-point flying into Africa and the Middle East from the major European hubs. This right-sized aircraft would allow the European legacy carriers a new way to compete with their Gulf Coast arch-rivals.
Hawaiian Airlines has sixteen A321NEOs on order, with nine options — what could 4,000 nm of range offer them?
While most of the 4,000 nm manifest is open sea, an aircraft with such range would allow Hawaiian to connect to more Southern Pacific island nations. It would also allow them to open up more cities within North America that do not have the traffic to sustain a larger aircraft.
To finish my little presentation of maps. Let’s take a look at what a 97-ton A321 could offer our friends in the Gulf. I chose AUH because Etihad already has a small fleet of A321s. For them, 4,000 nm, in any direction, puts them within reach of the majority of the world’s population. For an airline with connections in mind, the possibilities are endless.
The A321LR will make its debut in 2019, so I am afraid we have four years to wait to see what it can really do. In the interim, however we will see which customers actually purchase it.
Regardless of who orders it, if you lived in a secondary European city that sustained trans-Atlantic service using 757s, you no longer have to worry about your service disappearing as 757s slowly age out.
Boeing — your move.