American Airlines Group Inc. is taking a hard look at whether to buy Airbus SE’s proposed A321XLR aircraft, people familiar with the matter said. Any deal would be a big blow to struggling Boeing Co.’s rival foray into mid-range flying.

The U.S. carrier sees the plane, which would have the longest range of Airbus’s single-aisle offerings, as a potential replacement for its aging fleet of 34 Boeing 757-200 jets, said the people, who asked not to be named because the talks are private. While no announcement is planned for this month’s Paris Air Show, aircraft deals sometimes come together quickly, one of the people said.

American, the world’s largest airline, is one of a handful of carriers whose fleet decisions will play an outsize role as Airbus and Boeing vie for dominance in a middle-distance segment that overlaps the largest single-aisle and smallest twin-aisle aircraft. Boeing has put product-strategy decisions on the back burner as executives focus on returning the 737 Max to flight after two fatal accidents and a worldwide grounding.

Airbus is widely expected to launch the XLR variant in Paris later this month, even as a debate simmers within the company about rushing to make an announcement while Boeing continues to deliberate. The proposed plane, with a redesigned fuel tank that would extend the range of an existing long-distance A321 version by as many as 900 nautical miles, would be able to fly from American’s Dallas hub to central Europe.

Airbus and American declined to comment.

XLR Anticipation

India’s IndiGo, British Airways owner IAG SA, JetBlue Airways Corp. and serial airline entrepreneur David Neeleman have already expressed interest in the XLR.

By formally committing to move ahead with the XLR, Toulouse, France-based Airbus would have a chance to clip potential sales from the all-new airliner family contemplated by Boeing. The Airbus plane wouldn’t be available until 2023 or 2024 because of production constraints unless customers converted existing A320neo-family orders to the XLR, the company said this week.

While Chicago-based Boeing has been studying whether to offer a new twin-aisle jet for middle-distance routes, final decisions are on hold while the company focuses on the 737 Max crisis. Executives have maintained that their new plane could still begin commercial service by 2025, even though they don’t expect to decide whether to proceed until next year.

Boeing’s potential new offering is nicknamed the “797” by analysts and known within the company as the “NMA,” for new mid-market airplane. A key goal for Boeing is replacing midsized jetliners at U.S. carriers such as American, Delta Air Lines Inc. and United Continental Holdings Inc.

Aging Planes

Discussions between American and Airbus are at an early stage and there’s no guarantee the airline will order the XLR, said the people familiar with the talks. While the Fort Worth, Texas-based carrier has modernized much of its fleet, its 757 jets have an average age of 19 years.

If American takes the XLR, one question is whether the company would place a new order or convert some existing Airbus orders to the longest-range variant. The carrier still has 100 Airbus A320-family jets on order, according to American’s 2018 annual report.

American shocked Boeing in 2011 when word leaked at the Paris Air Show that the airline was in talks for a major A320-family order, its first purchase from Airbus since 1987. That helped sway Boeing to drop plans for an all-new single-aisle aircraft and instead build a simpler upgrade with new engines, which became the 737 Max.

A month after that year’s show, American announced a 460-plane deal that included the updated versions of the A320 and the 737.

Earlier Rejections

An XLR order from American would follow the airline’s rejections last year of two long-range Airbus variants.

American’s talks with Airbus over a possible order for new A330 planes ended in March 2018 when the aircraft manufacturer said it wouldn’t match Boeing’s price for wide-body jets. The following month, American ordered 47 of Boeing’s 787 Dreamliners.

The carrier also dropped an order last year for 22 Airbus A350 twin-aisle aircraft, which had been originally planned by merger partner US Airways.

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Photo Credit: American Airlines already flies a shorter range Airbus A321, like the one pictured here. It may want a longer range version. American Airlines