The A321XLR was launched to the aviation world in the recently concluded Paris Airshow. Termed as the latest evolution of the A321neo, it will be the longest range narrow body available in the market. With a range of up to 4700 nm, or 8700 km, and a very well optimised engine set, it is expected to make long range routes economical for airlines.
However, the A321XLR is definitely a turning point in the history of aviation. Here’s why:
Historically, aviation evolved under the Hub-and-Spoke model, i.e. major airports serve as Hubs and smaller airports, or Spokes, feed in to the Hubs. The Hubs were connected using large aircraft (notably Boeing 747 and McDonnell Douglas DC-10) with the ability to carry as many as 450 passengers. With the changing dynamics of the aviation industry, smaller planes like the Boeing 777, Boeing 767 and Airbus A300, with an average seating capacity of 250, were launched to service the Hubs, as well as some of the smaller airports. The Hub-and-Spoke model, still, was the industry best practice.
The 1990s saw an increasing consumer demand for aviation, which increased even further in the 2000s. The number of flyers were increasing by the day, and so was their demand for direct flights to destinations. Airlines, thus, started paying more attention to smaller airports. What emerged is known as a Point-to-Point model, where airlines try to connect smaller airports through direct flights using smaller aircraft. Another important factor – fuel economy – also played a major role in deciding which aircraft catch the eye of the airlines. The success of aircraft like the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350, and the failure of Airbus A380, is a testimony to the fact that the industry best practice had changed, and how operating costs mattered (more on this here).
However, the long-haul Point-to-Point aviation is still dominated by wide body planes, due to the range limitations with narrow body planes. Boeing 757 remains one of the widely used narrow body plane for medium-to-long range flights, but the range still isn’t enough for important money making routes (case in point: US-bound transatlantic routes).
This is exactly what the Airbus A321XLR provides – a fuel efficient narrow body with a good enough range to service cash cow routes. Hundreds of non-Hub airports can now be connected to other airports through direct, economical flights. And this is what would make the A321XLR an interesting proposition.
What will be more interesting to see is the customer response to long-haul narrow body flights. The airlines will have to ramp up the experience inside the plane to prepare the fliers for a 7-8 hour flight in a narrow-body. This may be a major factor to decide the future of the narrow body programmes by aircraft manufacturers.
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