The Pratt and Whitney powered A321 NEO makes its first flight
The Pratt and Whitney powered A321 NEO on first flight

Much has been made of a new Middle of the Market or MoM aircraft for over a year, but while Boeing, which invented the term, determines what exactly it will be, another jet has taken on a role that is capable of making it a Major Market Disruptor or MMD jet.

It’s the Airbus A321 NEO and its long range or LR version in particular.

This MMD has already been ordered or optioned for North Atlantic routes by Norwegian and JetBlue, with the former operating the variant with as many as 240 seats, or much the same capacity as the obsolete Boeing 757-200.

The LR form of the A321 NEO has the potential to significantly disrupt airline networks in this part of the world no matter what fleet decisions Qantas or Virgin Australia might make because of the way it can be used by other carriers in the Asia-Pacific to bypass the major limitations of restrictive bilateral agreements in some instances, or leverage the low cost airline model into routes that avoid congested hubs like Sydney, Hong Kong or the major Tokyo airports.

The 757 went out of production in 2005. With 4000 nautical miles or 7200 kilometres of range the A321 LR can carry as much as the older Boeing did over all but a few routes for considerably less cost in fuel and maintenance.

In a wider perspective, the A321 LR could be seen as a growth vehicle toward the A330 NEOs, which are likely to be found mostly in service over similar range city pairs with sector times like those on the east coast Australia to SE and Middle Asia runs.

By coincidence they have a seat count that is close to that of the original intention Boeing had for its 787-8s, except that those Dreamliners are now almost universally configured to fly around 90 more passengers (or 335 in the Jetstar example) because of an industry wide embrace of high density seating.

This Airbus version of the Boeing MoM will also be used by carriers with business models that are different and much more focused on driving low fare volumes of traffic than was the case in the days of peak 757s, the last of which was delivered in 2005.

And from 2019, every A321 NEO or new engine option of the largest single aisle Airbus that is delivered can be turned into an LR. It bears comparison to the Airbus strategy with its A350-900, which as delivered from mid 2018, can be upgraded in terms of range to an A350 ULR or ultra long range jet, which Singapore Airlines will be using to relaunch its non-stop services to Newark (for Manhattan) and other yet to be announced non-stop flights to America.

The MMD role of the A321 NEOs wasn’t apparent when Airbus officially launched the new engine option single aisle line in 2010. The large end of the line-up, the A321 only accounted for about ten percent of orders. Since then many NEO customers have upsized their orders prior to start of metal cutting, and new orders comprise at least 40 percent A321s with many expectations of 50 percent of NEO production being its share in 2020.

There are 364 current engine option A321s in the Airbus backlog and 1294 NEO versions at time of writing. The A321 NEO is said to be outselling its corresponding new engine technology Boeing product, the 737 MAX 9 by four to one.

The geometrical handicap of the 737 MAXs has been recited to within centimetres of its life in many places. The 737s sit too close to the ground for the wider diameter new tech engines to be used to full potential, and that inhibits the performance of the 737 MAX 9 even though the Franco-American CFM engine Boeing uses is a necessarily smaller version of one of the engines used on the competing Airbus NEOs.

The loss of 80 percent of the larger end of the single aisle market to Airbus is an incentive for Boeing to do something. The latest insider stories say an announcement of a 737 MAX 10 will be made between December and July next year of a model with has a taller undercarriage (which will trigger redesigning the emergency slides and other features) and use the same more powerful version of the CFM engine as is one of the options for the standard Airbus A321 NEO and LR versions.

But that would mean Boeing is selling the complexity of two substantially different versions of its single aisle family to cover the capabilities offered by one Airbus jet, which in turn would likely have negative impact on residual values and running costs, especially for airlines with relatively small fleets of jets at the outset.

What an Airbus MoM could mean in Australia

Route proliferation from Canberra, Newcastle, Maroochydore (Sunshine Coast), Proserpine, Wellcamp, Townsville, Cairns, Darwin, Alice Spring and Broome (for the Kimberley) and Avalon has much potential for the combination of low operating costs and leisure travel growth.

This isn’t to suggest A321 LRs wouldn’t attract corporate or major gateway operations either. But the policy settings of the major political parties in this country have always favoured concessional access to services by any airlines that will add to economic activity in preference to finding scarce slots best used by larger jets at Sydney and Melbourne.

An airliner the size of an A321 (hopefully offering some seating appropriate to normal sized adults) would also enable better frequencies out of secondary gateways. The stimulus to red centre and north western Australian tourism from Asia including India by greatly reduced costs and flights times could be of exceptional economic value.

The possible participation of Australian carriers is probably limited to Qantas and Jetstar, as it has an order for 99 A320 NEOs with the first expected to arrive late next year. There is uncertainty as to whether these jets, for both replacements and expansion, will be as originally intended for Jetstar alone (which already operates A320s and A321s) or full service Qantas, which operates 67 Boeing 737-800s.

Air New Zealand has 13 A320 NEOs on order, at least three of them A321s.

In its Global Market Forecast to 2035 Airbus estimates a total requirement of 33,000 new jet within 20 years, with 23,000 of them single aisle designs. On present indications, a great many of them will be A321s, serving brand new airports in some cases, and towns that are yet to become small cities in others.  Jets of this size and range won’t just change the places we know, but those we’ve never heard of in Africa, South and Central America, and central Asia.

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