Thursday, January 15, 2015

Airbus Thinks Its New A321LR Will Be Able to Replace the 757

The 737 and A320 families have grown a lot since they were launched, both in number of orders and in size. But while they’ve been able to handle most missions an airline might want, there’s always been a niche that they’ve never been able to handle. In fact, that niche of longer-haul segments with lower demand, has been what’s kept the 757 so popular in recent years. But now, Airbus says it has an answer. The A321LR was just launched with an order for 30.

A321LR Tells 757 Goodbye

When the 757 launched, it was designed to be a replacement for the 727. Two efficient engines instead of three meant lower fuel burn and big cost savings. The airplane did well and became a staple on shorter-haul routes pretty much everywhere. But eventually, the 737 and A320 families came to kill it.

Airbus first extended the A320 into the A321 for its first flight in 1994. It was a flop. Like Boeing did with the 757, Airbus got lazy and simply stretched the A320 without trying to improve range. The end result was a bigger airplane but one that couldn’t go very far. Airbus fairly quickly realized its error and started adding on range. Meanwhile, Boeing actually did the same thing on the 737-900. The first one flew in 2001 but it had short range and wasn’t popular.

It didn’t take long for Boeing and Airbus to both see the opportunity. Both of them added fuel tanks and extended range. At the same time, airlines began realizing that this was great on two levels so they started buying in droves.

On one hand, the 737-900ER and the A321 were bigger than the 737-800 and A320 but didn’t add much cost. So the cost per seat? Yeah, it came down a lot. Airlines really liked those economics and started buying big. US Airways and American (pre-merger) went for the A321. United and Alaska went for the 737-900ER. Delta, in true Delta fashion, went with both. (Southwest, which only flew the 737-700, upgauged to the 737-800 but hasn’t gone bigger… yet.) These started to become the most desirable narrowbodies flying.

While they liked the economics of the stretched airplane, there was another benefit. The 737-900ER and the A321 could be replacements for the aging 757 fleet. They were more efficient airplanes and they had commonality with the rest of the narrowbody fleet. It was perfect. The 757s started to disappear on domestic routes that could easily be served by these other airplanes.

But the 757 is a special airplane that has a lot of fantastic capabilities. While it could be replaced on most domestic routes, it couldn’t be replaced everywhere. See, the 757 can carry a full load a long way. That made it perfect for longer routes that didn’t have the demand for a widebody like the 767.

In the US, airlines realized that the 757 was perfect for routes like Hawai’i and short Transatlantic as well as some mid-haul Latin America flights. And there was nothing else that could replace it. Sure, some 737s could make it from the far west coast to Hawai’i but that was about it. And it wasn’t easy. It also wasn’t the bigger 737-900 that could do it. There was no substitute in the same size category for the 757.

When Airbus came out with the A320neo and Boeing the 737MAX, the gap started the close. Airbus can’t get any narrowbodies from the West Coast to Hawai’i today. That changes with the neo. But still, none of these airplanes would be able to carry enough people far enough to replace the 757.

Finally, Airbus has made the decision to try to rectify the situation. The A321LR will be an A321neo with extra fuel tanks in the belly. That will give the airplane almost as many seats as the 757 (almost), and it can fly 4,000nm (give or take). That’s plenty to serve the 757 mission, if it actually works as planned.

People are already tearing into the specs to see if it can actually do what it says. Leehman News is all over this. The A321LR should be able to operate for three quarters the cost of a 757, which is quite the improvement.

But once it rolls off the line, can it actually take ~165 people that far? What if airlines want a higher density layout? And can it carry any cargo? (Probably not.) The first order is from Steven Udvar-Hazy’s leasing company, and he will absolutely punish them if it doesn’t live up to expectations. So chances are, this may be the beginning of the end for the 757. But let’s wait and see before writing the airplane’s obituary.

[Original 757 image via Markus Mainka / Shutterstock.com; Original A321LR image via Airbus S.A.S]

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