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Just How Far Can You Go?

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At the Paris Air Show, big orders were few and far between. But there was new aircraft announcement that seems to have divided opinion, the Airbus A321 XLR
You might have flown on an Airbus A321, it is the slightly longer variant of the Airbus A320 that does service with several airlines in India and is the backbone of India’s domestic operations with over 300 in service. Kingfisher Airlines had the A321, Air India has a few and IndiGo is pressing the brand-new A321neo into service. The A321neo can carry 240 passengers instead of the A320’s 180, although the A320neo has an extra row of six seats. So one-third additional capacity for a slightly higher operating cost and marginal increase in maintenance costs.
 
But early in its career, the A321 had slightly less range than the A320 that changed rather quickly however and the A321-200 had a range just a smidgen under 6000 kilometers. When taking the example of Pune’s Lohegaon airport, whose short 8,300 foot runway can’t support big widebodies like the Boeing 787, but can support even a fully-loaded A321. The original A321 could manage, at full range, to operate flights to Korea or to the Balkans. But the A321neo with its next-generation, high-bypass turbofan engines like the CFM Leap and the Pratt&Whitney Geared Turbofan had a slight improvement of 500km in range, mainly thanks to the improved fuel economy.
 
However, Airbus obviously saw an opportunity which lies in long, thin routes. Routes where there is some demand, but not enough to justify even a small widebody aircraft like the 787. For example, some American and European airlines operate the older Boeing 757, which has a slightly higher number of seats than the A321 on such routes to Europe. These connected cities such as Edinburgh and Stuttgart to major American cities, bypassing hubs like London Heathrow and Frankfurt. But the Boeing 757 is out of production and as air travel booms across the world, particularly low-cost travel, Airbus decided to fill the gap.
 
In 2014, Airbus said that the A321neo will have a Long-Range (LR) version, whose signature route would be New York to Paris, hitherto impossible on the A321. This seemed a bit long, but these were six-seven hour flights and that was not a really big jump from the five-hour flights that many of us endure. IndiGo for example is using the A321neo on flights between Delhi and Istanbul. These, in the normal course of things, would just take seven hours, however in the present scenario, with our friendly western neighbour blocking access to its airspace in the north, this flight takes over eight hours with a stopover in Doha. And this brings us to a pertinent question, this Delhi to Istanbul flight spends as long you would on a widebody flight between india and Europe. How long are you willing to spend in a small, and crucially narrow aluminium tube hurthling through the atmosphere?
 
Sure, not every plane is pressurised the way the Boeing 787 Dreamliner or the Airbus A350 is, or has the size of the Airbus A380 and those planes are very comfortable, but even the smallest Dreamliner carriers over 320 passengers, the A380 carries at least 550 passengers at the very least. All these widebody planes have substantial premium cabins and require much more infrastructure, such as longer runways and taxiways, more space at the parking areas and more people to service and operate the planes. Not every route and every airport might need such aircraft. One reason the Airbus A380 did not work quite the way Airbus expected commercially was that there are very few routes that could sustain the demand of so many passengers. Even the smallest Boeing 787 cannot sustain certain routes, but an Airbus A321XLR, which might not fly as far, can easily sustain such a route.
 
This is despite the fact that on a per seat basis, the A321XLR might cost more to operate, the very fact that it has a fewer number of seats means selling those seats out is easier. An A321XLR operating at 90 per cent load is more profitable than a Dreamliner operating at 60 per cent load. And thus a route which might have seen a bit of demand, but not enough to justify a big plane, might finally get operated, even from large cities. For example, routes between Delhi and Manila or to Nairobi and Cairo. Routes where there are currently no non-stop services, might finally see the light of day. The A321XLR will also lead to low-cost operators like IndiGo operating on newer routes, like they are to Istanbul and the XLR could potentially see IndiGo operations to the United Kingdom.
And then there are airports like Pune, where the A321LR and A321XLR could operate with few modifications to the existing infrastructure, which clearly cannot handle a widebody. The city has been crying for a direct service between itself and Germany for example after Lufthansa cancelled the long-range private-jet configured Boeing 737 that operated on the sector. Aircraft like the A321XLR can open up a world of possibilities for folks from that city and several other smaller cities in India which do not have direct international service to anywhere bar the Arabian peninsula and South-East Asia. These planes throw up the possibility of direct flights bypassing the major hubs in Dubai and even domestic hubs in India such as Delhi or Mumbai. No more dangerous drives at the middle of the night down the Mumbai-Pune Expressway.
 
But what about comfort? The A320neo squeezed an extra row with modifications to the rear galley, as low-cost airlines do not serve hot food onboard flights, other than those heated up by boiling hot water, so no ovens, and who needs coffee machines when premixed sachets do the job just fine. However, if you have flown on an IndiGo A320neo, you might have noticed the super-narrow rear toilets, one of which has a flight attendant’s seat attached to the front. I genuinely would not want to be that poor flight attendant who has to sit on that seat. The seat cushioning is non-existent and some aircraft have seats that barely recline if at all they do recline in the first place. Thankfully, the issue about entertainment has been resolved with high-capacity portable entertainment devices a.k.a smartphones and some even some low-cost carriers have included USB ports on seatbacks and wifi, even though the latter is paid-for.
 
But long hours in cramped seats without hot food is not what you would call enjoyable. Then again, if it means that you save a couple of hours in layovers at strange airports, or a drive to your final destination or even possibly at a much cheaper price, would you deal with the lack of comfort for the convenience of flying direct? That is a decision you will ultimately have to make. Is time the most valuable thing in your vacation or is comfort, and we will all make different choices. Sometimes, we won’t mind a bit of discomfort if that means half a day more on a short break, at other times, I may want the fine dining and champagne of a business class seat. At the end of the day, I do not believe that flying should be the right of a few, it has to be democratised and made available to many. People should see different parts of the world, and maybe the A321XLR will make that a bit easier.
 
Quotes
“AIRBUS SAW AN OPPORTUNITY WHICH LIES IN LONG, THIN ROUTES. ROUTES WHERE THERE IS SOME DEMAND, BUT NOT ENOUGH TO JUSTIFY AN AIRCRAFT LIKE THE 787”
 
“AIRCRAFT LIKE THE A321XLR CAN OPEN UP A WORLD OF POSSIBILITIES FOR SMALLER CITIES IN INDIA WHICH DO NOT HAVE DIRECT INTERNATIONAL SERVICE”

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