If you heard somebody say narrow-body aircraft are the next big thing in aviation in the year 2000, you would have passed it off as the naive analysis from an overenthusiastic intern. Come 2020, this intern is surely the CEO of an aviation advisory.
It was not in a very distant past that airlines realized how the Hub-and-Spoke model of aviation was economically inefficient and did not gel with changing consumer preferences. This was aided, by a large part, by Boeing and its focus on fuel-efficient non-jumbo aircraft (Boeing 787 Dreamliner, for example). Airlines now had an option to go for smaller, 250-300 seater aircraft that could fly directly between almost all of the world’s important cities in terms of air traffic. In addition to bringing to light the concept of long haul budget travel, what this also fuelled is the increased focus on the Point-to-Point model of aviation (though it has been in practice for long).
What the Point-to-Point model tries to achieve is to service smaller airports through direct flights to (and from) big airports or other smaller airports. Consequently, the need for smaller, fuel-efficient aircraft came to the fore, since filling up large aircraft in smaller airports is a challenge, more so if you want a more frequent service schedule (like a once-daily flight). Thus, the inclination of the airlines of today towards the Point-to-Point model is one of the reasons why smaller aircraft are the next big thing in aviation. This is the reason why Airbus A380 sales pale in comparison to that of Boeing 787 and Airbus A350.
But size is not the only factor at play here. Another major factor is the range. The 180-seater Airbus A320 family has a range of ~6000 km averaged across variants while the similar capacity Boeing 737 family has a range of ~7000 km averaged across variants. Thus, if an airline wishes to connect two smaller airports 8000 km away from each other, it would need to deploy a wide-body, since the most common narrow-body aircraft may not have enough range to service the route. Therefore, with an increasing range, smaller aircraft are becoming airlines’ darlings, since they give them the option of expanding their operations in small demand routes.
Narrow-body aircraft in action
Two of the most important aircraft in this respect are both Airbus products:
A220 and A321XLR.
While the A321XLR has a maximum range of 8700 km (in a 175-200 passenger configuration), the A220 can go as far as 6200 km (in a 120-150 passenger configuration). The airlines acquiring these jets can unlock largely unserviced routes, which is one of the most important profit drivers for the airline industry in general.
For example, the A321XLR can fly directly from London to Mumbai, Miami, Vancouver and even western China (check this amazing visualization). Here we have tried to map only leading cities to explain our point better, but just imagine the possibilities in lesser busy city pairs like Stockholm to Guangzhou, Brussels to Chennai, or Johannesburg to Phuket.
Similarly, the A220 can fly London to New York, Kabul, Tashkent and Addis Ababa.
Thus, these aircraft have been hailed by some as the next big thing in aviation. Only time can tell what the fate of the aircraft is, but the current order book reflects a bright future (order books for A321XLR, A220).
Cover Credits: Andrzej Otrębski