With the full recovery of air travel demand not expected for several years, the Airbus A321XLR is poised to enter into service at precisely the right moment. According to Bloomberg, Airbus is pouring resources into the new plane even as it pulls back spending on other projects to save cash.
Since its launch a year ago, the jet has racked up over 450 orders from 24 customers including American Airlines, United Airlines and JetBlue Airways.
Nicknamed XLR for “extra long range,” the newest member of the A320-family of narrow-body aircraft can fly a distance of up to 4,700 nautical miles, the longest range of any single-aisle aircraft. This is an attractive proposition for airlines which are eager to fly further with the economics of a single-aisle plane.
Airbus recently began production of the XLR and expects to have entry into service on time in 2023. Guillaume Faury, Airbus’ CEO, has identified the new model as one that can help the manufacturer through a slump in demand that’s likely to weigh on single-aisle output until 2022. Faury said in April that the XLR “will be a fantastic plane as we go out of the crisis.”
Depending on the configuration, the plane can seat between 175 to 244 passengers.
When aerospace rival Boeing opted to shelve plans for a new mid-market plane to replace its discontinued 757, it placed the XLR in a particularly strong position to fill that market niche.
Boeing ended production of the 757 in October 2004, and carriers with the type are anxious to replace the aging aircraft for use on trans-continental routes.
According to Airbus, city pairs such as London to Miami and Rome to New York are feasible with the XLR, and carriers such as Ireland’s Aer Lingus, have ordered type with trans-Atlantic services in mind.
Meanwhile, rival Boeing is preoccupied with its grounded 737 Max as they try to get it back in the air following two fatal crashes, leaving the XLR free of competition in a class by itself.
Aviation experts expect wide-body jet operations to be the last to return to pre-COVID-19 levels, making the XLR a popular aircraft in the post-pandemic environment.
“It’s going to be a category killer,” said Sash Tusa, an analyst at Agency Partners in London. “It’s going to dominate medium-haul demand for probably three to five years coming out of the crisis.”
As the range of narrow-body aircraft increase, there has been a dip in demand for larger planes that typically have higher profit margins. Both Airbus and Boeing were forced to cut wide-body aircraft output before the coronavirus pandemic hit, and they have since made further cutbacks.
The attractiveness of the XLR has seen a shifting of some existing orders away from the smaller A320-family models to the longest-range plane, as customers try to come to grips with the new dynamics of air travel.
With its ability to operate efficiently on routes across continents, the XLR has also made a hit with low-cost carriers such as AirAsiaX which has placed a significant order for the aircraft type.
American Airlines was one of the first and largest customers for the A321XLR. According to Simple Flying, the airline had ordered no less than 50, although 30 of those were converted from already existing orders for the A321neo.