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In the Spotlight: The Airbus A321XLR

In this edition of mba Aviation’s Insight Series, Ryan Cross, Analyst – Market Intelligence & Innovation, analyzes the appeal of the Airbus A321XLR to Operators.

Key Concepts:

  • Airbus’ A321XLR program builds on the success of the A321neo to bring superior fuel efficiency and narrowbody economics to intercontinental routes.
  • The XLR aircraft offers network carriers an appropriate replacement for their aging Boeing 757-200 fleets.
  • By quickly closing deals with major airlines and leasing companies for the XLR, Airbus has raised pressure on the viability of Boeing’s NMA concept.

First to Market Advantage

Airbus scored a victory with the timing of its launch of the XLR program.  Since it quickly locked down a healthy orderbook from an operationally-diverse range of airline customers, it proved the market’s appetite for a longer-ranger narrowbody aircraft with current engine technology.  The wise decision to launch the XLR dealt a blow to Boeing’s product development strategy.  Boeing was sidetracked for most of 2019 by the grounding of the 737 MAX program.  As it labors over the safe return of the MAX to service, it will probably not make a counterpunch in the first half of 2020.

For several years, Boeing executives have pondered whether to commit to the full development of the New Midsize Aircraft (NMA).  A number of loyal Boeing customers are clamoring for a modern replacement for midsize 757 and 767 aircraft.  Nevertheless, the American airframer must now reevaluate the prospects of its NMA; several would-be customers have already defected to its European counterpart.

At the start of the Paris Air Show last June, Air Lease Corporation (ALC) placed the first public order for the XLR.  John Plueger, the leasing company’s chief executive officer, described why the XLR might could squash interest in the NMA for prospective operators: “We think that [the XLR] addresses the smaller size of what Boeing envisions to be the NMA (a larger and smaller version).  It remains to be seen as to market acceptance and economic viability of that program in terms of being able to develop it and deliver it to the airlines at a price point which is compelling…  We will assess, and we are talking with Boeing as they continue to look at the NMA.” More recently, Plueger stated that the NMA’s development prospects had “diminished significantly” because of the broad range of difficulties weighing Boeing down.

Following ALC’s orderbook jump-start with 27 aircraft, GECAS placed an order for 20 aircraft in November.  By winning orders from a duo of prominent lessors plus a pair of market-making American network carriers, Airbus demonstrated the XLR’s appeal among top-tier customer base.

Range Capabilities

The XLR offers 15% greater range than the prior-generation A321LR variant, which in turn surpassed the range of the A321neo by 15%.  When configured with a low-density cabin with lie-flat seats for business class passengers, the aircraft’s range will stretch to 8,700 KM; its flight time will exceed nine hours.  The aircraft offers a 1,500 KM increase over the 757-200 and 1,300 KM beyond the LR variant. From New York, as an example, this means that the XLR can operate deep into South America and far into Eastern Europe.

Conclusions

Reflecting on the first phase of the XLR program, Airbus should take particular pride in the XLR orders it received from American Airlines and United Airlines.  Both operators fly large fleets of 757 and 767 aircraft which will reach the end of their economic life in the years ahead.  By closing those deals early in the life of the XLR program, Airbus elbowed out Boeing from orders from these market-makers.  Among the three American legacy carriers, only Delta Air Lines remains uncommitted to a midsize aircraft replacement order.  The Atlanta-based carrier will eventually need to replace up to 200 midsize aircraft.

Airbus will surely accumulate more orders for the XLR before 2023, when it intends to deliver the aircraft for commercial service. Whether or not the NMA comes to market, Airbus will continue to lure operators to the XLR with an enticing combination of narrowbody cabin capacity economics, intercontinental range, and superior fuel efficiency thanks to modern engine technology.