Here’s Why Boeing Isn’t Worried About The Airbus A321XLR

The imminent service launch of the Airbus A321XLR is set to shake up the world of narrowbody operations. With up to 11 hours flying time for a range of 4,700 NM, the XLR will be capable of connecting distant city pairs with low-capacity services, ideal for helping airlines break into unserved markets.

Boeing does not have anything that can directly compete with the A321XLR. Its largest narrowbody, which is also not yet in service, is the 737 MAX 10. Designed to carry 188 – 204 passengers, it doesn’t quite match up to the 180 – 220 passenger capacity of the A321neo. And without the extra fuel tanks Airbus is wedging in for the XLR’s ambitious range, the Boeing falls short of the legs of the XLR by a substantial 1,500 NM.

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The MAX 10, on display at this week’s Farnborough Airshow, has less capacity and a lower range than the new Airbus. Photo: Boeing

Darren Hulst, Vice President – Commercial Marketing at Boeing, talked a little bit about the niche prospects of the long-haul single-aisle market during the reveal of the company’s annual Commercial Market Outlook. Taking long-haul as being over 3,000 miles or 5,000 km, the interesting aspect is that airlines are not using small planes for long-haul flights any more often today than they were 10 or 15 years ago.

Hulst commented,

“If you look at the single-aisle network, the average distance of single-aisle aircraft flies has increased over the last 15 years by almost 20%. So airlines are flying further with their aircraft. They’re just not flying six, eight, nine hour missions on a routine basis, because the heart of demand continues to be where the single-aisle aircraft are optimized to fly.”

Boeing estimates that long-haul makes up less than 0.3% of the total single-aisle market. Graphic: Boeing

Indeed, Boeing estimates that flights of over 3,000 miles make up just 0.2 to 0.3% of the entire single-aisle market. In a roundabout way, Hulst is saying there is limited appeal for a plane like the XLR.

Boeing clearly believes that, of the 30,880 narrowbody aircraft projected to be required by 2040, the vast majority of those will be standard, run-of-the-mill narrowbodies doing straightforward short-haul work.

A fraction of a fraction of the market

Now that the A321XLR has taken its first flight, airlines are keenly looking for Airbus to deliver on its promised entry into service projections. Some 500 of the type are already on order, from all segments of the industry. Low-costs such as Wizz and IndiGo will see delivery of the type, as will full-service airlines, including United and Qantas.

Some big Boeing customers have turned to the XLR for 757 replacements. Photo: Airbus

But even with those 500-plus aircraft entering the market, Boeing does not see it as a threat. Hulst noted that even if the frequencies of long-haul narrowbody flights were to double as a result, the entire operations would still only be in the region of 0.3 to 0.4% of the single-aisle network. Any growth is likely to be further compounded by the fact the entire single-aisle market will be growing, as Hulst explained,


“Let’s remember that rest of the single market is also going to continue to grow at historic rates, in many cases at a higher-than-average rate relative to other parts of the market.

“So I think that relationship is largely going to hold because while the aircraft may have a little bit more capability, there’s still the tradeoffs of the lack of baggage capacity, the lack of cargo capacity and how it doesn’t integrate with the rest of single-aisle or widebody networks.”

“It’s definitely an interesting niche, but probably still a fraction of a fraction of the market.”

Admitting the NMA role the XLR will play

Boeing had, for many years, planned to release a new midsized airplane as a natural replacement for the 757/767 family of aircraft. The jury was out on whether it would be a long-range flying pencil like the 757, or a lightweight widebody alternative. Nevertheless, amidst the fallout from the 737 MAX disaster, the planemaker shelved the project and is yet to revisit its plans.

With no upgrade pathway, Boeing can’t offer a replacement for the 757. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying.

During the briefing, Hulst noted that the XLR may well be used as a replacement for older Boeing aircraft, commenting,

“From my perspective, a lot of these airplanes are actually replacements for aircraft like the 757 and others.”

While that’s likely a pain point for Boeing, in that it has nothing to offer as a competent replacement for its popular ‘flying pencil’, there’s not much that can be done about it now. The pause in development has put it on the back foot in that particular market segment, but given the challenges with the 737 MAX and the 787 Dreamliner the company was experiencing at the time, it was the right thing to do.

Do you think Boeing is underestimating the impact of the A321XLR? Or is it right that the impact on the single-aisle market will be minimal?

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