HomeLifestyleAirbus Extra-Long-Range A321XLR Wows Paris Airshow Crowds

Airbus Extra-Long-Range A321XLR Wows Paris Airshow Crowds

At the 2023 Paris Airshow, Airbus Industries showed off its new A321XLR (eXtra Long Range) narrowbody airliner to the festive crowd. They roared as the pilots put it through its paces, banking and dipping through the French sky. Airline executives watched hungrily, as the economical airliner is seen as both a potential money-saver and moneymaker, ready to open profitable new routes around the world.

Some 550 Airbus A321XLRs have already been ordered. American Airlines and United have ordered 50 each, followed by Qantas, with 36 aircraft. IndiGo, AirAsia X, JetSMART, Sky Airline, and LATAM Airlines also confirmed orders. Icelandair recently contracted for 13 of the planes to replace its Boeing 757s starting in 2029.

The key sales driver is the plane’s promised range of up to 4,700 nautical miles (nm), or 8700 kilometers (km.) While a handful of aircraft boast nearly double that, few routes require costly, specially-equipped widebodies that can fly 18,000km from New York to Singapore.

Instead, airlines can use the A321XLR to connect many city pairs thousands of miles apart. Flights from New York to Rome, Santiago, Chile, to Miami, London to Vancouver, Delhi to London, Sydney to Kuala Lumpur, Tokyo to Anchorage and even Houston-Reykjavik are all possible with the A321XLR. With 180 to 200 seats, airlines should find the plane easier to fill with paying passengers than 250 to 500 seat widebodies.

In the U.S., there are 40 cities with populations of over 450,000 people. Many could now support international flights with the new long-range but easy to fill aircraft. It might not be enough to convince Nebraska resident (and notorious airline hater) Warren Buffett to get back in the business, but it’s just 4,284 mi from Omaha (population 480,000) to London, an easy non-stop for the A321XLR.

In a sense, the Airbus A321XLR is the replacement for the company’s A380. The two planes are very different, but Airbus learned from its mistakes (A380 development alone is said to have cost $25 billion) and essentially cannibalized its own market.

The massive 505-passenger, four-engine A380 was designed in the 1990’s for a projected hub-and-spoke world. The idea was that hordes of passengers would embark in one of the world’s biggest cities and land 10 to 15 hours later in another hub, where they would board smaller planes for closer destinations.

The massive A380 requires a long runway and special unloading facilities as well. If the plane is ever economic to operate, it is only when it is full. The concept failed in most areas, with only Emirates, operating nearly half the 251 A380s built, making it work out of Dubai. No American carriers bought the plane, and the production line shut down in 2021.

The Airbus A321XLR is built around point-to-point flights, a different concept. Instead of flying to a hub, passengers can fly directly to their destination, even a medium-sized city 4500 miles away. And obviously, it’s a lot easier to fill a 200-seat plane than one holding 500.

The A321XLR is the latest variant the A321 family to arrive from Airbus. The first A321,itself a stretched derivative of the popular Airbus A320, was delivered in 1994. More than 4500 have been ordered so far.

If all goes according to plan, the first A321XLR will be delivered to an airline customer in 2024, exactly 30 years later. Recent A321 variants include the fuel efficient A321 neo and the A321LR, an earlier long-range model that has helped airlines like JetBlue achieve transatlantic service to London, Paris and Amsterdam from the U.S. East Coast.

The A321XLR, as befits its name, offers even longer-range performance. Its design includes an extra fuel tank built into the back of the fuselage, giving it a 4,700 nautical mile (8700 kilometers) range. The plane will seat 180 to 220 depending on configuration. According to Airbus, it offers a -30% lower fuel burn per seat than previous generation aircraft.

Airbus calls it “The perfect Route Opener with lower risk for point-to-point operations.” The risk is that of operating a widebody jet that may fly half empty, yet still have much higher crew, fuel and maintenance costs. The aircraft maker also says that the A321XLR can complement widebody aircraft by serving the same routes at off-peak times or in cases of significant seasonal variation in demand.

Airbus calls this “single-aisle economics with Xtra Long Range performance.” According to the company, this translates into 45% lower trip costs than modern widebodies, and 30% less fuel burn per seat than previous generation aircraft.

The A321XLR additional range comes from its AEROTECH Rear Center Tank (RCT) in the fuselage below the passenger cabin. The added weight of tank and fuel brings the plane’s maximum takeoff weight to over 100 tons (223,000 pounds), the heaviest A321 to date. The planes landing gear was strengthened to support it.

The placement of the tank has raised some questions from regulatory agencies. “The United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) expressed concerns about the durability and safety of a fuel tank located at the back of the aircraft, which is also located below the cabin, especially during a crash,” Aerotime Hub noted in June.

However, EASA (the European Union Aviation Safety Agency) has published several ways Airbus can comply with the Special Condition (SC) regarding the aft fuel tank. These include additional design precautions, fuselage break points, crushing of lower fuselage under vertical descent impact velocities, sliding on the ground, and internal protection recommendations.

An Airbus spokesperson confirmed, “A roadmap has been agreed with EASA and by extension the FAA for certification at the end of 2023.”

When the aircraft arrives in 2024, passengers may face some adjustments. It appears that in “economical cruise” mode, the XLR flies a little slower to conserve fuel, which can lengthen flights. Although cruise speed for the A321XLR is Mach .78, or about 598 miles per hour, Airbus says that an A321XLR can fly up 4700 nautical miles,(5408 statute miles), in 11 hours.

This represents a speed of 491mph, which Airbus says doesn’t account for slower takeoff and landing phases. Still, by comparison, the larger Boeing 787 Dreamliner has a listed cruise speed of 652 mph.

And unlike modern dual aisle widebodies like the Dreamliner or Airbus A350, A321XLR passengers will only have a single aisle in which to get up and stretch their legs on a long flight.

The insane luxury of The Residence on Etihad’s A380s is also hard to achieve on a narrowbody A321XLR, unless you somehow buy your own and have it built to your specifics at Citadel Completions.) The A321XLR can’t match the up front (or up top) roomy luxury of an Airbus A380 or an ageing Boeing B747.

But if the tradeoff is a reasonably priced direct flight from Raleigh to Rome, it is a price many of us are willing to pay.

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