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Soon, long-distance travel may mean reduced carbon footprint but more jet lag

New routes could mean a cut in carbon footprint as fliers could take direct flights

At the recent Paris Airshow 2019, Airbus announced the launch of the much-awaited A321XLR. Short for Extra Long Range (XLR), the new member of the Airbus narrow-body family will be delivered to airlines starting 2023 onwards.

This jet can fly up to 220 passengers for 4,700 nautical miles in a two-class configuration (business and economy), which means, originating from Delhi, one could fly all the way to Greenland on the west and touch Alaska on the east. What’s more, since the range gets inversely lesser as the number of seats installed gets higher, even with a full economy configuration, the aircraft should be able to fly all the way through Europe, even London, without a fuel stop from Delhi or Mumbai.

Why this concept aircraft is already a hit—12 airlines have already committed to over 230 A321XLRs—is simple then. The aviation business is all about flying the right aircraft to the right airports. In the absence of the right aircraft, airlines sometimes fly bigger aircraft for smaller demands. This means they no longer need to fly a wide-body aircraft with two aisles to a route which would be good enough with this aircraft. Not to mention, this aircraft consumes 30% less fuel than earlier generation aircraft, which means less harm to the environment.

How does this help the customers? They could choose to fly from their home airport directly to an international destination, rather than fly to a hub and then travel further out. For example, there is a lot of demand for flights between Pune and Frankfurt, given it is the home for many German car manufacturers in India including Mercedes Benz. Lufthansa used to fly a 92-seater Boeing 737 between the two cities and can now fly a greater number of seats into Pune if they got this aircraft. Many other new routes could open up, which may mean saving of time as well as the carbon footprint, given passengers would not have to take multiple flights to reach their destinations.

For the airlines, this aircraft also serves another purpose which they could not achieve with a long-haul aircraft. Since the A321XLR is just another version of their most popular A320neo family, airlines can have the same pool of pilots and cabin crew to operate all the seven variants of the aircraft. And same thing with the aircraft. They could utilize it for more hours, making even better use of the planes they have. According to Airbus, the airline could use this aircraft to fly abroad for a flight which takes about 8 hours each way, and still use it for a domestic flight of 1-1.5 hours once the plane returns from its international flight.

The debate for the past one week has then focused on the passenger experience rather than the economics of flight. As a reminder, before the wide-bodies came along, the earlier generation aircraft such as Boeing 707 and the Boeing 757 were all narrow-body single-aisle aircraft too. Airlines are well capable of doing many things to make an experience even out of a narrow-body aircraft. For instance, take the boutique airline, La Compagnie, which exclusively flies an A321neo aircraft between Paris and New York, and only offers 76 business class seats on the aircraft. Then, it all boils down to how do airlines determine how many passengers are good enough on these aircraft.

What might not change on this aircraft, then, is the space and the cabin pressurization as compared to a wide-body. With a single aisle, there will be hardly any space to walk or stretch if you wanted to, and with so many passengers waiting to use the lavatory, that queue might stretch out back as well. Another feature that newer generation such as the Boeing 787 and the A350 have is how these aircraft treat fresh air coming into the cabin and maintain cabin pressure as if you are at 6,000ft, while you are actually at 35,000ft. This helps with the jet lag, given you come off the plane feeling fresher. This might be lacking in the A321XLR.

Boeing, which has been talking about their New Midsize Aircraft (NMA) for a few years to take this space, has chosen not to respond to the new launch by Airbus at the moment, given their hands are full with the Boeing 737 MAX grounding. It would be interesting to see what would their differentiation be with the XLR if and when they finally move forward with the project.

Elevate Your Travel is a column for the business travellers by a business traveller.

Ajay Awtaney is founder and editor of Livefromalounge.com, an Indian aviation website.

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