What can and can’t the A321XLR do?

Hello All,

Airbus launched the A321XLR last week on the first day of the Paris Air Show. 229 orders and letters of intent were placed for the new A321neo variant. It is scheduled to enter service in 2023. In this blog post we will first discuss why the A321XLR was launched, including whether the A321LR is a true Boeing 757 replacement. We will then evaluate the A321XLR’s effective range. After checking whether the aircraft has the range to complete the missions Airbus claims it is capable of in marketing brochures, we will look at destinations the A321XLR could reach from 8 cities for airlines that didn’t order the aircraft yet.

When launched in January 2015, Airbus claimed the A321LR would have a 4,000 nautical miles range that would make it a proper 757-200 replacement. The fuel burn per seat would be at least 25% lower than the aging Boeing aircraft. The aircraft entered service with a few airlines, including TAP Portugal. TAP owner David Neeleman declared last week in a Flightglobal.com article that the “A321LR didn’t end up having the range it was promised … the LR wasn’t a 757 replacement”. Does the data back Neeleman’s claim?

Below is how the A321LR and 757-200 payload-range diagrams compare. We added the A321neo as a reference:

B757_A321neo_A321LR

As well as summary aircraft specifications:

Aircraft Max Payload Range at Max Payload Range At Max Fuel Range
3,000 3,250 3,500 3,750 4,000
757-200 25 3,100 3,800 25.0 23.9 22.1 20.4 15.1
A321LR 23.5 3,050 4,000 23.5 22.5 21.0 19.5 18.0
A321neo 25 2,500 2,650 16.5 11.0 5.5 0.0 0

The main A321neo weakness is that it is fuel limited at around 2,650nm. In practice that means the A321neo cannot do flights much longer than US trans-continental (JetBlue pretty much uses the entire aircraft range with its future flight from New York to Guayaquil, at 2,581nm). It is a legacy of the fact the A321 was conceived as a stretch of the A320 without any major wing redesign that would increase fuel capacity. The A321LR loses around 1.5 metric tons in maximum payload capacity (due to the extra weight incurred by the 3 auxiliary fuel tanks) but is fuel limited at 4,000nm.

As one can see the 757-200 can carry more payload than the A321LR all the way to 3,800nm, when it becomes fuel limited. It is only past that range that the A321LR can carry more payload.

The above payload capabilities assume a short haul configuration without amenities that would be standard for trans-Atlantic flights. In flight entertainment, lie flat beds and amenities to cater on such flights make the aircraft heavier. As a rule of thumb we will assume that the aircraft is 10kg heavier per passenger and 100kg per lie flat bed. If we take TAP’s configuration with 152 economy seats and 16 lie flat beds, the aircraft is around 3.3 metric tons heavier.

Airbus assumes a weight of 90kg per passenger when calculating the A321LR range. This assumption is reasonable on short haul flights for low cost airlines but unrealistic on a trans-Atlantic flight. In practice airlines use around 100kg per passenger including luggage. This means TAP’s A321LR carries a payload of 16.8 metric tons.

Taking into account the heavier cabin and real world passenger weight, we obtain the following payload-range table for the 757-200 and A321LR in TAP’s configuration:

Aircraft Payload at Given Range Range At Seating Transatlantic Range
3000 3250 3500 3750 4000 Summer Winter
A321LR 20.2 19.2 17.7 16.2 14.7 3,653 3,403 3,153
757-200 21.7 20.7 18.9 17.1 11.8 3,790 3,540 3,290

As one can see the A321LR has more than 100nm less range than the 757-200. In order to account for real life trans-Atlantic conditions one needs to subtract at least 250nm for summer conditions and 500nm for winter conditions. Headwinds are stronger going west over the Atlantic during winter months. TAP’s longest flight with the A321LR, Lisbon to Washington Dulles, has a 3,121 nm great circle distance. The airline plans to operate the flight during winter months.

One should note that the 757-200 range is for a brand new aircraft. The 757-200s carriers currently operate are quite old, resulting in diminished performance (and range). US Airlines currently operate flights up to 3,300nm during summer. If one were to compare the range of a 757-200 from Delta Air Lines with TAP’s A321LR, it would be closer than above. However that does not change the fact David Neeleman is right in saying the A321LR has less range than the 757-200.

The fact the A321LR isn’t a true 757-200 replacement is part of the reason why Airbus studied a variant with more range. The 3 auxiliary fuel tanks are quite inefficient (each weighs 400 kg). Airbus looked at alternatives to make the fuel tank design more efficient.

However the main reason for the aircraft launch was a combination of airline demand and Boeing’s New Midsize Airplane. Airbus hopes that by launching the A321XLR it will lure some customers away from Boeing’s NMA. Since the business case for the NMA is already edgy, Airbus hopes to deter the American manufacturer from launching it altogether. American Airlines will use the A321XLR to replace its aging 757-200 fleet. Other carriers, such as Qantas’ JetStar and IAG, will mainly launch new narrowbody long haul services or keep more frequencies during low demand months.

Now that we outlined how the A321XLR came about, what is the aircraft’s range?

Bjorn Ferhm confirmed in a post on Leeham News and Analysis that Airbus uses the same assumptions as with the A321LR when outlining the A321XLR range. This will allow us to re-use some of the work that we did in another blog post on the A321XLR before it was launched.

Airbus claims that the A321XLR’s rear fuel tank weighs as much as one auxiliary fuel tank. Wizz Air also announced that it is planning to seat 239 passengers in the A321XLR. Wizz Air will not use anything that makes the aircraft cabin heavier such as IFE or lie flat beds. We will therefore assume that the maximum payload the A321XLR can carry is 24 metric tons.

We can therefore chart an approximate payload-range diagram for the A321XLR, comparing it with the 757-200 and A321LR:

B757_A321LR_A321XLR

And the following basic aircraft specifications:

A321 XLR Specification Value
MTOW (metric tons) 101
Max Payload (metric tons) 24
Range at Max Payload (nm) 3,650
Range at Max Fuel (nm) 4,700
Payload at Max Fuel (metric tons) 18

Note that the above figures assume the same aircraft configuration as Airbus. We therefore need to take into account the addition of IFE and lie flat beds. We will assume the following five aircraft configurations (for TAP and Aer Lingus we use the same configuration as on their current A321LR):

A321XLR Configuration Nominal Maximum Payload Passenger Seats Extra Aircraft Weight Maximum Payload
Economy Lie Flat Total
Low Cost 24 200 0 200 2 22.0
ULC 24 240 240 0 24.0
Premium 24 135 15 150 3.0 21.0
TAP 24 152 16 168 3.3 20.7
Aer Lingus 24 168 16 184 3.4 20.6

Payload and weight in metric tons

A321XLR Config Payload at Given Range Range At Seating Transatlantic Range
3500 3750 4000 4250 4500 4700 Summer Winter
Brochure 24.0 23.4 22.0 20.5 19.1 18.0
ULC 24.0 23.4 22.0 20.5 19.1 18.0 3,650 3,400 3,150
Low Cost 22.0 21.4 20.0 18.5 17.1 16.0 4,000 3,750 3,500
Premium 21.0 20.4 19.0 17.5 16.1 15.0 4,700 4,450 4,200
TAP Portugal 20.7 20.1 18.7 17.2 15.9 14.7 4,320 4,070 3,820
Aer Lingus 20.6 20.0 18.6 17.1 15.7 14.6 4,035 3,785 3,535

As one can see the aircraft has meaningfully more range than the A321LR. Even in an ultra low cost configuration is can fly from London to New York with a full payload during winter months. Nevertheless, the effective range can be up to 1,500nm less than what Airbus announced in the brochure. We will now look at which city pairs in Airbus’ brochure are within range of the A321XLR, depending on the aircraft configuration.

Below are the city pairs and an ‘x’ flags whether it is within the practical range of the A321XLR depending on the seating configuration. We also outline whether we use the winter or summer range assumption. We assume a winter range anytime the flight involves a change of more than 3 time zones.

Route Distance Range ULC Low Cost Aer Lingus TAP Portugal Premium
JFK-FCO     3,717 Winter x x
IAH-SCL     4,037 Summer x x
IAH-HNL     3,392 Winter x x x x
IAH-KEF     3,357 Winter x x x x
MIA-ANC     3,479 Winter x x x x
MIA-EZE     3,845 Summer x x
DXB-KEF     3,741 Winter x x
DXB-CPT     4,114 Summer x
DXB-KUL     2,997 Winter x x x x x
DEL-LHR     3,642 Winter x x
DEL-NRT     3,197 Winter x x x x
KUL-AKL     4,699 Winter
NRT-ANC     2,984 Winter x x x x x
NRT-SYD     4,211 Summer x
AKL-HNL     3,814 Summer x x

Apart from Kuala Lumpur to Auckland all the city pairs are reachable with a premium configuration. Only Sydney – Tokyo Narita and Dubai – Cape Town are not within reach of the A321XLR in TAP Portugal’s configuration. On the other hand very few routes are within reach of the ultra low cost configuration.

In the rest of the blog post we will look at eight airlines that could potentially order the A321XLR. We will check whether some cities are within reach or not from their main hub (with an ‘x’). Below are the airlines and airports we will consider. We also specify the assumed configuration:

Region Airline Airport of interest Configuration
Atlantic Icelandair KEF Low Cost
Central Asia Air Astana TSE TAP Portugal
North America Air Canada YUL Aer Lingus
North Asia Korean Air ICN Premium
North Europe SAS CPH Premium
Pacific Hawaiian HNL Aer Lingus
South Europe Tap Portugal LIS TAP Portugal
Southeast Asia Air Asia KUL ULC

Icelandair – Keflavik (KEF)

A post was recently written on this blog about Icelandair considering a switch to the A321neo. As we can see below the A321XLR is a strong candidate to replace the aging 757s and 767s in the carrier’s fleet:

Airport  Distance  Winter Summer
MIA  3,184 x x
YVR  3,080 x x
DFW  3,252 x x
SFO  3,653 x
LAX  3,748 x

SFO and LAX are not within reach during winter months with a full 200 passengers payload. However given the lower travel demand during winter the airline could still consider operating the type to the US West Coast without a full passenger payload or switching to a more premium configuration. All other Northern America destinations of interest are within reach.

Air Astana – Nur-Sultan (TSE)

Given Kazakhstan’s location on the Eurasian continent, the A321XLR provides interesting opportunities:

Airport  Distance  Winter Summer
LIS   3,339 x x
SIN   3,399 x x
NRT   3,031 x x
KEF   2,845 x x
MNL   3,233 x x

Even using a configuration like Aer Lingus, the Kazakhstan flag carrier can reach Lisbon, Singapore, Tokyo, Reykjavik and Manila from Nur-Sultan. The A321XLR can operate all routes within the carrier’s network. Air Astana should seriously consider canceling its order for 3 787-8s (converting to more E195 E2s) and ordering the A321XLR instead to replace its aging 767-300ERs.

Air Canada – Montreal (YUL)

Following the announcement of Air Canada’s takeover of Air Transat, the Canadian carrier will inherit an order for the A321LR. Montreal is an ideal location for trans-Atlantic operations given its Northeast location. Unlike Toronto the airport isn’t slot constrained, giving room for further expansion.

Airport  Distance  Winter Summer
BCN  3,200 x x
GVA  3,198 x x
MXP  3,310 x x
FCO  3,565 x
TXL  3,250 x x
VIE  3,500 x x

Rome might be a stretch during winter months with a full payload but other than that the A321XLR can fly deep into Europe year round, including to Vienna. Flights to secondary cities in France won’t be an issue year round with the A321XLR. Once the Air Transat transaction concludes Air Canada is a strong candidate to announce an A321XLR order.

Korean Air – Seoul (ICN)

One should acknowledge that it is unlikely at this point that Korean Air Lines will place an A321XLR order in the near future. The Korean flag carrier has a large cargo business, for which the A321XLR isn’t suited. However, with Delta Air Lines’ investment, the airline might consider long haul narrowbody flights down the line.

Airport  Distance  Winter Summer
SYD  4,487
BNE  4,158 x x
HNL  3,977 x x
BOM  2,999 x x
DXB  3,640 x x
ARN  4,008 x x
IST  4,289 x

Sydney is too far from Seoul for the A321XLR, even in a premium configuration. However numerous thinner routes, such as Stockholm and Brisbane, are reachable year round. The latest A321neo variant could allow Korean Air to operate more frequencies on thin routes without cargo. Flights to other Hawaii islands are possible with the A321XLR.

SAS – Copenhagen (CPH)

SAS already ordered the A321LR. The A321XLR would allow the Scandinavian flag carrier to fly to Chicago year round with a full passenger payload, as well as some other destinations.

Airport  Distance  Winter Summer
MIA 4,243 x
ORD 3,711 x x
IAD 3,540 x x
BOM 3,464 x x
YYZ 3,395 x x
PEK 3,895 x x

Miami would only be reachable during summer months. However Washington, Mumbai and Toronto are reachable year round. Beijing would also be reachable from Copenhagen. Since a large number of those long haul routes operate with less than daily frequency, the A321XLR is a potential game changer for SAS to improve profitability.

Hawaiian – Honolulu (HNL)

Hawaiian Airlines already operates the A321neo. Therefore an A321XLR order would make a lot of sense given fleet commonality.

Airport  Distance  Winter Summer
CTS  3,259 x x
NKM  3,490 x x
KIX  3,577 x
GUM  3,303 x x
DFW  3,289 x x
IAH  3,392 x x
ORD  3,687 x
AKL  3,814

Eastern Japan and Texas are reachable year round. Osaka and Chicago are reachable during summer months. Reaching Auckland would require a more premium oriented cabin cabin with fewer seats. Hawaiian Airlines would be able to increase frequencies on flights to secondary Japan cities.

TAP Portugal – Lisbon (LIS)

The main interest of the A321XLR for the Portuguese flag carrier is to fly deeper into the USA and Brazil.

Airport  Distance  Winter Summer
ORD  3,483 x x
MIA  3,612 x x
LAD  3,110 x x
REC  3,154 x x
SSA  3,497 x x
GIG  4,152
IAH  4,154

Houston and Rio de Janeiro are too far for the A321XLR. However Chicago, Miami and Salvador are now reachable year round. David Neeleman’s interest for the A321XLR is justified.

Air Asia – Kuala Lumpur

The Asian low cost airline has expressed strong interest in the A321XLR. The carrier might consider swapping some A330neo orders to the A321XLR. The airline might use an ultra low cost configuration seating almost 240 passengers. Since the carrier does not operate across many time zones we will assume it can use a summer range.

Airport  Distance  Reachable
HND  2,886 x
CTS  3,210 x
CNS  2,864 x
BNE  3,476
DXB  2,997 x
URC  2,576 x

Eastern Australia is a stretch in an ultra low cost configuration. However all of China, Japan and Dubai are within reach. The aircraft is a strong alternative to the A330neo for Air Asia.

To summarize it was a lower than hoped A321LR range as well as a tactical move on Boeing’s NMA that led Airbus to launch the A321XLR. While in practice the aircraft does not have the advertised 4,700nm range, airlines can consider far more routes than with the LR variant, depending on the aircraft configuration. It is an outstanding alternative for thin or seasonal routes to increase frequencies. One should note that the A321XLR cannot carry much cargo, if any. A number of airlines will be studying whether they are better off operating two daily A321XLR flights or a single one with a widebody.

Credit: Airbus

A321XLR

22 thoughts on “What can and can’t the A321XLR do?

  1. Hi

    Fantastic post! Great content!

    I have a question, how do you think the A321XLR will fair for airlines in 40 degrees Celsius temperatures? For example, there are a few smaller airlines in the Middle East that cannot generally compete with the behemoths that are EK and QR (MEA, KU, GF, WY, RJ, even EY in its current and expected state). These airlines can maintain relevance in many markets with decent frequency IF the A321XLR can operate with economic payloads in high ME summer temperatures.

    Of course, I am using the ME airlines as an example because of the general climate in the region as well as geographic location (that does open up many opportunities) but my question can be applied to any airline operating out of a hot (not necessarily high) airport anywhere in the world (the Mediterranean in summer, South East Asia in summer, some parts of South America, etc.)

    What are your thoughts on this?

    Like

    1. Hello, thanks for reaching out!

      I am not an expert on aircraft field performance in high and hot conditions. From what i understand the A321XLR will have the same field performance as the A321LR thanks to some minor wing modifications.

      However the A321LR does not have great field performance in the first place. My guess is that most of Europe (excluding Iceland) should be reachable depending on pax configuration. I suspect numerous airlines will choose to take off during the middle eastern night for flights at the limit of the aircraft’s range.

      I hope this helps. Best

      Like

      1. It’s a pleasure. I am glad I found your site. Great content!

        This does help. Yes, I was concerned that with minimal changes to the wing, the A321XLR may still not be as capable as it could be but I completely understand Airbus wanting to make as little investment as possible. They can get away with it because only they offer an aircraft of this type.

        I agree that late night flights out of hot airports will be necessary to achieve the greatest payload/range capability.

        Like

    2. Hi Muhammad,

      Think of it this way, High altitude and hot conditions are effectively like MTOW reduction/penalty. It is like carrying a magical load/dead-weight that will disappear once the aircraft climbs to cruising altitude. It applies across the board regardless of aircraft types. For example the the A321XLR recieves a 4t MTOW increment over the 97t MTOW of the A321LR. However in high or hot conditions, the aircraft has to carry the additional 4t magical load, so you can expect the A321XLR to have a similar payload-range performance of a A321LR under normal condition.
      New opportunities will still be available if it falls within the payload-range capabilities. However if the hope is to operate the aircraft at its maximum range of 4700nmi, then it will not be possible.

      Like

  2. Hi there,

    Thanks for another great analysis. I’m sure your article shed some lights on the myth surrounding the A321XLR. With Icelandic Air suffering badly from the B737max groundings and a handful of ageing B757, the A321XLR does seems like a very proposition for the airline.
    I’m not sure about the potential of the XLR with the other airlines, but for AirAsia it most certainly is intriguing. They made a massive upsize of their orders to the A321neo during the PAS19 without specifying if it is the base model or the XLR. However my personal take is that a large portion of it will consist of the XLR variant. As mentioned in your earlier article, the A321XLR will open up many routes from their hubs in bangkok, kuala lumpur and jakarta. But more interestingly is what are the routes that the A321XLR will bring to their secondary hubs in Penang, Bali and Phuket. The XLR will allow AirAsia to offer direct services and better connectivity to and from countries like Korea, Japan, UAE and Qatar which are previously limited by the use of widebody aircraft. On top of that, their rapid expansion into the Philippines and India market will see more use of the XLR with the likes of linking the Philippines to Hawaii and India to central Europe and east asia and the list goes on. For AirAsia, the A321XLR will serve as a secondary hub to primary cites connector while the A330neo remains as the primary aircraft serving between their primary hubs to primary cities like london, tokyo and sydney.

    Like

    1. Thanks for pointing out the secondary hub to primary city opportunities … actually Cebu Pacific mentioned that in their A321XLR order. Your analysis is in my opinion spot on. Asian legacy will face fiercer competition.

      Like

      1. Hi there again,

        Just a side note, perhaps it will be good if you could overlap the payload-range of the A320neo and the A321XLR to better show the opportunity that the XLR brings to current A320neo operators.

        Liked by 1 person

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