U.S. airlines can reach some Western European airports profitably with narrow-body aircraft. But even the best narrow-body aircraft have some range issues. If it wants to fly to Europe, JetBlue will need to decide whether it can do so with the A321LR, or whether it should wait for a longer-range aircraft.
JetBlue Airways might fly to Europe soon. To do that, the airline would need an aircraft like the Airbus A321LR, which can fly from Boston and New York to many popular destinations.
It is not a perfect solution for JetBlue’s transatlantic plans because it lacks range to serve all of western Europe profitably, year-round.
However, Reuters reported last month Airbus is considering building a similar aircraft that can fly farther, called the Airbus A321XLR, or extra-long-range. And if Airbus does, JetBlue would be interested, the carrier’s CEO said in an interview.
“I don’t want to get ahead of Airbus making the decision to announce it,” JetBlue’s Robin Hayes said. “But if they do announce it, then of course it’s interesting. It does have some additional range, and we will continue to look at it.”
In the short-term, Hayes said, JetBlue is evaluating the A321LR, because it’s the only Airbus narrow-body that can fly most routes the airline might fly. JetBlue executives have hinted they could order the jets as soon as next year, though the airline likely would have to wait at least two years for delivery. JetBlue would also need to receive federal approval for extended overwater operations, a process that can take a year or more.
But longer-term, the extra long-range version could make sense. Officially, the A321LR can fly most Western European routes from the eastern United States. Airbus lists its range as 4,000 nautical miles, making routes like Frankfurt to New York possible. But like a gas-mileage on a car, range estimates are guesses. With strong headwinds, or poor weather en route, an aircraft’s range can be far less than listed, forcing fuel stops.
Airbus is said to be exploring the longer-range aircraft because some of its customers want it. Lufthansa Group CEO Carsten Spohr told reporters in March that he didn’t think the A321LR was reliable enough for Germany-U.S. routes. Boeing is also exploring a longer range, middle-of-the-market airplane that airlines could fly between Europe and North America. Unlike Airbus’ possible update of an existing aircraft, Boeing would start from scratch with design.
Two years ago, Dave Clark, then JetBlue’s vice president for network planning and now its vice president for sales and revenue management, told Skift the airline was aware of the A321LRs range limitations.
“People say, ‘Oh the plane can do everything a 757 can,’” Clark said a 2016 interview. “Well, a lot of 757s take fuel stops on the way back from Europe, and different companies have different tolerances for that. There’s a wide range of performance based on what you want the experience to be like.”
Reuters reported the proposed extra long range jet would not have any new aerodynamic features, but would carry more fuel than the long-range model. However, Hayes said the extra-long-range model would be more tailored for longer routes and might have less in common with standard-range A321s JetBlue already flies.
“All the LR really is, is a third auxiliary fuel tank, so you can always take it out of the airplane and fly the airplane in the rest of your network,” he said. “The XLR has a fuel tank bladder and it’s got some other changes that make it a different airplane.”
Boston and New York Focus
JetBlue is evaluating its long-range options because it wants to better serve customers at its focus cities in Boston and New York, Hayes said. Airlines often want to fly their most valuable customers everywhere they want to go, and today, JetBlue must let its top revenue-producers fly with a competitor when they want to go to London and Paris.
“It very much is about, how do we continue to build relevance in Boston and JFK?” Hayes said. “Some of these large markets in Europe are now some of the largest unserved markets we have out of these cities.”
But he said JetBlue won’t launch Europe flights unless executives can calculate they’ll make at least as much money as North American routes.
“We would balance flying to one of these markets against other opportunities we have in our network,” he said. “It’s really going to be about, which options drive the best return? We are not emotional about just flying to London or Paris just for the sake of saying we fly to Europe.”
Photo credit: The first Airbus A321LR recently completed a test flight from Paris to New York. But it's not clear the airplane will be able to fly consistently with a full payload from all of Western Europe to the United States. Airbus