Will passengers adopt long flights in narrow-body planes as they become more common?

Will passengers adopt long flights in narrow-body planes as they become more common?

What did not get much attention is that the airline also placed an order for 20 A321XLR. As photos of the first XLR appeared online, the talk shifted to the two routes depicted on the plane. The port side has New York to Rome while the starboard side has London to New Delhi! The great circle distance between New York and Rome is 6,884 kms while that between London and New Delhi is 6,744 kms while the advertised range of the A321XLR is 8,300 kms. The aircraft is yet to make its first flight.

Monday, May 2nd, was a watershed moment for Airbus. Since 2017, Qantas has placed an order for the A350-1000 as part of Project Sunrise. The airline intends to offer nonstop flights from Australia to London and New York, something it is currently unable to achieve due to the limited range of its present fleet. The A321XLR made an appearance in full livery on the same day. With global landmarks becoming part of the “neo” typography, tongues were wagging.

IndiGo is one the largest customers of Airbus and has an enviable backlog of the A320neo family including an undisclosed number of A321XLR. While the XLR has been ordered by many operators, not everyone has declared their LOPA (Layout of Passenger Accommodation). Qantas has announced that it will configure the aircraft in 20 business class and 180 economy class seats.

As Qantas published the list of cities the XLR can fly to with possibilities of it replacing the 330 on some routes or additional frequencies, the focus quickly shifted to the usual debate of narrow-body vs, wide-body and whether the XLR will be successful in India, especially since the aircraft itself had Delhi-London depicted on it. IndiGo has been open about its ambition to fly to London and has filed for slots for a one-stop flight.

At the same time IndiGo has also been wary of inducting wide-body aircraft, pushing the decision to fly to Europe until after the induction of the XLR. A wide-body aircraft is expensive to operate and maintain. The cost of operating one flight is way higher than operating a narrow-body aircraft. Thus an empty flight can hit an airline harder than a shorter flight with a narrow-body plane.

More often these look like concerns structured around the Low Cost Carriers (LCCs), which also have a larger order book of the XLR than the Full Service Carriers (FSCs). But a look at various factors shows LCCs have been able to offer even tighter seating in wide-body aircraft which they have operated.

Food on the other hand is an airline-specific issue. IndiGo has been wary of adding ovens to its aircraft for the additional weight. Not all LCCs come with this philosophy. As for the roomier cabins, while Airbus (and also Boeing) are working towards ways to make the cabin look roomier, it can hardly replace the fact that wide-body aircraft are much more roomy than the narrow-body ones.

Another concern is about the number of washrooms. While wide-body planes have a higher number of washrooms, they also have a higher number of passengers, taking an average of about one washroom per 45 economy class passengers compared to one per 52 economy class passengers in one of the A321LRs being currently used by airlines for transatlantic flights. But the real challenge comes with people queuing up to use the washrooms. While a wide-body aircraft has ample space to stand, the narrow-body washroom alignment either hampers service or becomes inconvenient for passengers sitting near the lavatory.

All eyes will be on IndiGo’s LOPA, whenever the airline declares it. From the Indian perspective, this is an opportunity to be the jetBlue of India. The US carrier started as a value offering and gradually moved up the chain to have a multi-type fleet and introduced a business class product. Will IndiGo differentiate the product? It has repeatedly said that it is evaluating multiple options and it looks more and more certain that the ovens will make an appearance in the XLR. But what people will be closely watching is the seat pitch, cushion comfort, availability of streaming or Wi-Fi to make that decision – whenever they have to!

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