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Mideast Airlines Poised for Introduction of Airbus A321XLR

 - November 15, 2019, 10:19 AM
The range of the Airbus A321 XLR will allow Lebanon's Middle East Airlines to fly direct from Beirut to Cape Town. (Image: Airbus)

While much of the attention paid to Airbus’s A321XLR has centered on prospects for opening further transatlantic narrowbody markets, the latest and largest member of the A320neo family carries a far wider appeal, particularly in places in which the airline industry’s low-fare sector remains comparatively underdeveloped. In the Middle East, low-fare carriers account for just 19 percent of the market, compared with some 40 percent in North America and Europe, presenting an opportunity perhaps as dynamic as that already largely exploited by Airbus in Asia. Meanwhile, current A330 operators such as Saudi Arabian Airlines and Lebanon’s Middle East Airlines have shown a market exists for more narrowbody sales opportunity among full-service carriers in the region, from where the 4,700-nm reach of the A321XLR will offer access to some 85 percent of the world’s population, by Airbus’s reckoning.

Scheduled to enter service in 2023, the A321XLR has already won commitments from three airlines in the form of firm orders from Saudia for 15 airplanes and Middle East Airlines for four, along with an MOU from Saudi low-fare carrier Flynas covering 10. “It’s generated a lot of interest in the region; there’s no doubt about that,” said Airbus head of marketing for the Middle East and Africa Andrew Armitstead. “Airlines want to know about it, they want to hear about it, they want to understand it. And it goes across all the sides of the airline market as well. Most airlines in the region have asked about the new aircraft.”

Armitstead explained that the XLR offers capacity flexibility for long-haul carriers flying A330s and market expansion opportunities for current Airbus A320 operators such as Flynas. For Middle East Airlines, the extra range means network planners can add a route from Beirut to Cape Town, for example.

Airbus calls the XLR the latest neo family evolution, from the 4,000-nm A321LR—which it introduced in 2015—to a 4,700-nm-range aircraft carrying the capability to serve all of Europe, Asia, and Africa from existing Middle East hubs. Changes in the XLR include a permanent rear center fuel tank as opposed to the auxiliary fuel tanks in the LR, modified landing gear to account for an increase in mtow from 97 to 101 tonnes, and an “optimized” flap configuration to preserve the takeoff performance and engine thrust requirements of today’s A321neo.

“The real step forward was to say, ‘look, we can design a permanent fuel tank, which is more efficient in terms of weight; it weighs less than the auxiliary center tanks, so there were efficiencies to be had there,” allowing Airbus to address concerns about increased fuel burn that extra capability typically suggests, explained Armitstead. “Any aircraft engineer normally thinks that’s impossible, to put more range on an aircraft and not affect the weight and the fuel burn,” he said. “But we found a way of doing that, which was particularly attractive.”

On whether or not Airbus’s current challenges associated with the ramp-up in Hamburg of the so-called “Cabin Flex” version of the A321neo, known as the A321 ACF, might affect the schedule for the XLR, Armitstead insisted that Airbus would resolve the production instability caused by complexities in the new design long before the 4,700-nm-range neo enters its industrial phase. In fact, part of the reasoning behind the relatively long timeline for entry into service centered on a desire to avoid upsetting production flow, he explained.

“It’s a design change and I think what we know with the instabilities that we’ve had on the single-aisle production lines in the past is that we’ve got to plan the introduction and ramp-up very carefully and very conservatively,” he said. “Because what we don’t want is the new type to destabilize production.”