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Aviation: A321LR - game changer or niche player?

SAS Scandinavian Airlines is the latest carrier to sign up for Airbus' latest narrow-body, the A321LR. The derivative of the best selling jet entered service late last year with Arkia Airlines of Israel, and announced commitments so far involve almost 150 jets.

The A321LR is similar to the A321neo which is now in widespread service, but adds three additional fuel tanks in the belly to extend its range to 4,600 miles. It is capable of accommodating as many as 244 passengers in high-density configuration (which will limit its range) or a more typical 170-200 with mixed class seating. Airbus started to offer the A321LR in 2015 and Air Lease Corporation (ALC) opened the order book with a commitment for 59. Other carriers quickly followed suit. Primera Air was set to be the launch customer until it collapsed last year, leaving Arkia Airlines of Israel as the first to put the A321LR to work in late 2018.

A321LR orders

Aer Lingus 8 (via ALC)

Air Arabia 6 (via ALC)

Air Astana 4 (via ALC)

Air Transat 15

Arkia 3

JetStar Airways 18

Norwegian 30

Peach Air 2

Primera Air 2 (via AerCap)

SAS 3 (via ALC)

SATA Acores 4 (via ALC)

TAP Portugal 10

Arkia was the first airline to put the A321LR into service. (Airbus)

Into service

Airbus claims the A321LR is 20-30% more efficient than the Boeing 757-200s it is designed to replace. And while it is early days, Arkia Airlines says its 22-seat A321LRs are more efficient than the Boeing 757-300 it also operates. The carrier is flying its new 220-seat jets on routes from Tel Aviv that include London Stansted and the Seychelles.

Aer Lingus has announced Dublin to Hartford, Minneapolis / St Paul and Montreal as its first A321LR routes. The aircraft can also reach cities such as Boston, Chicago, New York and Washington DC. Meanwhile TAP will introduce the A321 to Tel Aviv at the end of March and then on its services between Porto and Newark, New Jersey starting on June 1. The Portuguese aircraft will carry 168 passengers in a mixed-configuration cabin (16 in business, 152 in economy) and will fly across the Atlantic six times per week, offering a useful frequency increase by replacing a twice-weekly A330.

Boeing 757 replacement

The prospect of spending eight hours or more in a single-aisle narrow-bodied aircraft isn't an appealing proposition to some frequent travellers. However, The Aviation Oracle has flown from the UK to Newark, NJ in 757s on many occasions, in economy and business class, and has never found the experience particularly objectionable. Its difficult to believe that an A321LR configured with mixed cabins will be any worse.

The Boeing 757-200 has been a stalwart on the leaner North Atlantic services for many years, especially between the UK and the east coast of the USA. It has been deployed by US carriers including American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines, but European carriers such as La Compagnie and OpenSkies have also used it across 'the pond' with some success. However the last 757 rolled off the production line 15 years ago and most have now been withdrawn from front-line passenger service. As a result some routes have had up-gauges while others have had to be dropped.

Clearly then there is still a market for a long-range narrow-bodied jet. Air Astana will undoubtedly deploy the A321LR on existing 757 routes which are typically six to eight hours in duration. Aer Lingus will use also use the jet on services currently flown by 757s. Norwegian on the other hand may elect to deploy A321LRs on trips across the Atlantic that are outgrowing its Boeing 737-8MAX aircraft. However, the aircraft will generate opportunities for new intercontinental routes between secondary cities which can generate a reasonable load - 150 or more passengers per service allowing for a mixed-class configuration and average load factors. An Airbus graphic (below) offers an insight into where Airbus sees opportunities for the A321LR.

Its almost certain that Airbus would like the A321LR to be adopted by one of the US big three as a replacement for their transatlantic-configured 757s. So far no orders have been placed, but United is seen as the most likely to move while a commitment from American much is less likely as it has largely removed the Boeing from its oceanic services.

New markets

Although the A321LR is a potential 757 replacement and only accounts for around 10% of A321neo orders, it offers airlines the opportunity to open new thin routes between continents. SAS has already implied it will use the A321 to launch new direct links between secondary Scandinavian cities and North America, while Peach and JetStar will use it to launch new services between Asia and Australasia. The A321LR is well suited to operations between western Europe and the eastern portion of the USA, with potential to reach the midwest in less-dense configurations.

The A321LR may also to appeal to low-cost carriers (LCCs) wanting to extend their reach, which typically carry less cargo than full-service airlines. The additional fuel tanks eat into underfloor space, leaving enough room for bags but not for freight too. The A321LR offers a compromise between passenger, baggage, cargo and fuel loads which will challenge some legacy airlines looking to push the range, but those choices will be less problematic for LCCs.

Now that the A321LR is in service, other customers will start to take note of its capabilities. It should become a new hub-buster, an aircraft capable of flying between regional airports on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as broadening airline's ability to offer long intra-Asia trips in thinner markets than has been possible to date. It will replace some of the last few 757s in passenger service, especially in markets where standard A321s and Boeing 737s don't have the range or payload capability to complete the missions - and in doing so it will reduce airline costs.

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