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Today we spoke with Antonio Da Costa, VP Single-Aisle Marketing at Airbus, about the A321XLR.  Airbus has seen the A321 become its most popular single-aisle model, out-delivering the A320neo last year for the first time.  The combination of rapid traffic recovery and a pilot shortage means airlines must use larger aircraft to move the traffic volume with fewer crew.  But the A321’s success seems to be driven by the aircraft’s growing capabilities. Here is an Airbus A321XLR update.

AirInsight: Today I’m speaking with Antonia Da Costa, VP Single-Aisle Marketing at Airbus.  Let’s talk about the A321XLR.  Please give me a sense of the program status.

Airbus: Sure. So, we’re well advanced in our development of the A321 XLR. We already have three aircraft in the flight test phase.  The third one joined the fleet not that long ago and it has the beauty to be installed with a full-blown cabin, and we’ll be using it to do usual flight test stuff, as well as actually testing the cabin systems and long flights. I’m sure that you’ve seen that we did it was a major milestone test, as far as we see it, which was to do the long endurance flight when we had the XLR flying for just over 13 hours across Europe. So all is going well, and the results are coming as expected. And we see ourselves well on track to have this aircraft certified right in the middle of next year. And entering into services as well.

AirInsight: That’s amazing. You think about the 321 as the generation that it is, and 13 hours while the first jet that flew long-haul was a four-engined 707 and DC8 and they did not fly that many hours in one leg.  So what are your expectations? On the XLR in terms of orders, market interest? What are you seeing?

Airbus: We’re seeing very strong interest from airlines pretty much all across the different walks of life. We have over 500 orders today for the XLR, and we see that coming from a variety of airlines, be it network carriers that want to expand their networks, with the XLR going into secondary destinations as well as low-cost carriers that are also ordering the XLR in order to be able to expand their networks. What we see as well geographically is they’re coming from across the world, Europe, North America, or Asia. So clearly this is an aircraft that satisfies different market needs, be it like I said, on the high-end side of things with the multiclass arrangements, all the way to low-cost carriers who want to also offer longer missions and capabilities to their passengers.

Indeed, we’ve already seen that with the 321LR where we had some low-cost carriers ordering this aircraft to be able to fly a bit further and do that extra leg or two.  We see strong demand for low-cost missions. And that trend continues with the XLR. So the experience that we built with LR and the expectation that the 321LR was already able to bring to the market is now being translated into the XLR with an extra capability

AirInsight: When you look at the customer base, are some global regions that are showing more interest?  I’m thinking like the North Atlantic. Is that a particular hotspot?

Airbus: Yes, I will say that, although I can’t disclose all the customers who have the XLR in place. That’s their privilege to do so. Nevertheless, so we do see it as a very North Atlantic-oriented aircraft, but not exclusively, because we also see interest coming from other regions, be it Asia or the Middle East. Pretty much anywhere that you think that you have the good capability of flying an aircraft for 10 to 12 hours, that will be the kind of very that the XLR is aiming for.

So wherever you have those flights, customers are looking at the aircraft, and some have already bought it. As I said, we have over 500 orders in our order book.

AirInsight: It seems that the almost unique capability of the airplane lends itself to opening new markets as a way to avoid hubs.  You can fly from, let’s say, Lyon, to pretty much anywhere on the US East Coast, and maybe quite a bit inland. And if you are an airline that does not hub in the US, you can go around hubs.  And if you’re a US carrier, for example, you could fly directly to secondary cities in Europe, avoiding the big hubs.

Airbus: Exactly, to just probably begin taking stock of what we already see with the 321LR, and taking one example that springs to mind which is TAP Portugal.  And what these guys have been able to do is to actually create a new hub to some extent, by using 321LR to fly routes that normally would not be able to sustain a wide-body aircraft, opening new routes that they then develop all the way to wide-body aircraft. There are a couple of examples like Washington DC or Montreal that were not served before started the 321LR and moved on.

The reason I mentioned them as well is I also saw an article recently press quoting the new head of strategy and quoting very clearly, this aircraft is very flexible for us because it has the range from the western tip of Europe that helps flying the transatlantic on the 321LR. But it does so at a similar cost to a widebody.

So from an airline, they can be just as competitive on their fares as they are on the widebody front, but without having the risk of having to fill a wide body and therefore, if it is a thin route, losing money. So it’s a risk-free or low-risk approach towards flying long haul for airlines that don’t have the hubs or don’t have the networks to do so.

AirInsight: There was some positive feedback on the XLR at the recent Routes Conference. Speaking to this as well from a couple of airline people. (American and Air Canada)

Airbus: I’m sure there’s a lot of interest and a lot of curiosity out there.  Who’s going to shoot first and where are they going to shoot?

AirInsight: The big thing here, of course, is that the airplane has some unique capabilities and principally as we’ve mentioned so far hours which of course speaks the range.  How do you think the airplane is going to be used? For example, when you look at the A330; it is like a size nine shoe you can do regional, transcon in the US, and do trans-oceans.  It has that capability. The XLR will also have a wide range of capabilities. What are your expectations of how the 321XLR will be deployed? Will half the fleet be flying at 4000 plus nautical miles?

Airbus: That’s a very good question. And to be fair, one has to really make a guess here. My guess is the one that you’ve just mentioned before. What we’ve seen with the A330 is that it’s a very flexible aircraft because it’s efficient at flying short-haul, medium-haul, and long-haul.

And its economics work in all three types of missions. With the 321XLR, we will be seeing the same behavior because, after all, it’s no more no less than an A321 with an adapted fuel system to fly further. So it has unbeatable economics and that’s why going back to the example of mentioned by TAP and quoting again TAP management, it has the same unit costs as the A330.

And if that’s the case well then, brilliant because that means you have that same flexibility as well. So our expectation is that customers will be using this aircraft as a super flexible asset being able to fly 10 to 12-hour missions, as well as two or three-hour emissions very efficiently.

AirInsight: So given the unusual capabilities, I guess we really need to talk about what happens to a single airplane on these super long flights. Can you talk to us about the cabin? What are you doing to the cabin that will make it feel less claustrophobic? I’ll give an example of why I’m saying this. I remember flying an A321 from Baltimore to Reykjavik and back. The seats didn’t move back at all. So it was trying, but it was five hours, not 13.

Airbus: It really depends on the experience that you’re getting, and if you were to repeat the same experience, but drive to JFK, and take the JetBlue aircraft to Heathrow, then I think you’d have a very, very different experience because the aircraft is configured for a long haul.

What are we doing in terms of the A321 capabilities to make it a long-haul friendly platform which is already there? We have to start with the basics.

Going back to the basics, the first thing that you have to think about is you mentioned it’s a narrow cabin, compared to a widebody.  Yes, but when you take it to a seat level you actually have the same seat width that you get on an Airbus widebody, which is 18 inches. So that’s the seat width and you’re getting on an A330 or A350.

Added to that you have a second feature that I want to talk about, which is that all XLRs will be coming with our new Airspace cabin. And the new Airspace cabin is bringing a new look and feel into the cabin itself. Fully contemporary and modern. It is designed to make you feel a lot better in terms of the visuals of the light, which will be full LED lighting, so it helps with the jetlag as you’re raising and dimming the lights in a progressive manner without having that blast of white light you have the older generation aircraft.

And one other feature which was linked to that but very linked to passenger comfort is the fact that it has bigger bins, which allow every passenger just like on a widebody when they walk on the aircraft to bring one roller bag on board in coach. So even that peace of mind is that you will be able to have your carry-on next to you and not two rows away three rows ahead five rows behind wherever or the crew takes it and says won’t fit in the aircraft we’re going to put it into the hold. That’s not going to happen.

Adding two other points. It’s a single-aisle aircraft. But guess what? It’s flying at 6,000 feet cabin altitude maximum. So, we experience on A321 the same cabin pressure altitude that you will have on an A350 or for some of the competition aircraft.

Another point that’s worth highlighting is when you talk to the more seasoned business traveler. Whenever you ask what would be their favorite seat to fly in an aircraft? The answer would be, more often than not, the upper deck of the 747 as you end up with a cozier environment which is more exclusive, less of this big bus type of approach.  Let’s call it closer to a corporate jet.

And that’s exactly what you’re getting in the A321XLR.  Again if you take some of the LRs flying today. I mentioned JetBlue as one example but amongst others the transcon on the A321 of American Airlines.

The product that you get in first or in business is no better and no worse than what you would get in a widebody aircraft. In terms of comfort, in terms of the IFE capability, the connectivity, it’s exactly the same as a widebody.

When you’re back at the end of the bus, in coach you’ve got the same seat has a widebody. If it’s properly spec’d, and WOW was designed as a low-cost operation that was a service as a transatlantic operation. You will have your seat back screen. You will have the same recline, you’d have the same meal service as you get her on the widebody.

So, all in all, I hold my ground on this one. You’re getting the same experiences on the wide-body aircraft but without having all those extra passengers next to you. It’s only six around you if in coach or one or two in business or first. And by the way, you’re not sacrificing comfort, and you’re more most probably gaining time. That’s the big thing. That’s the one selling point, and you mentioned earlier, you’re bypassing the hub. So you’re actually getting to your final destination much quicker.

AirInsight: Antiono, last question, when we look at deliveries, there’s a strong move towards the middle of the market single aisle.  Do you see what is called single MoM, middle market aircraft, you think that that’s going to become a much bigger segment than it has been up to now? For example, the original single-aisle MoM was in the 757that had just over 1,000 deliveries.

Airbus: It’s already the case. Today, the way I see it, the A321 has become the de facto MoM. What we’ve seen is a strong endorsement of the market. In fact, when we see our production sales trends, we’re seeing a trend that’s clearly over 50%.  We’re seeing into the 60s and maybe as far as 70% of A321 sales as far as our A320-family is concerned.

And it shows me two things: the market is happy to upgauge because demand is increasing especially coming out of COVID with this uptick in demand. And the A321 really offers the best of both worlds. It’s an aircraft that has the range and comfort to fly short, medium, and long missions. So, it’s flexible, and it’s hugely, hugely efficient.

In terms of the cost per seat, it’s the lowest you can find – it’s a money-making machine and therefore airlines can use it to be competitive and be profitable simultaneously. This offers great service, great prices, and great profitability for their shareholders.

AirInsight: Thank you so much.

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Co-Founder AirInsight. My previous life includes stints at Shell South Africa, CIC Research, and PA Consulting. Got bitten by the aviation bug and ended up an Avgeek. Then the data bug got me, making me a curious Avgeek seeking data-driven logic. Also, I appreciate conversations with smart people from whom I learn so much. Summary: I am very fortunate to work with and converse with great people.

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