The Airbus A320 family has been a great success for Airbus. It was launched only in 1988 (almost twenty years after the Boeing 737) but has gone on to take the lead in aircraft orders (not yet sales). The aircraft has been continuously updated with different sized variants, engine and efficiency upgrades, and lately longer range options.
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The need for a new narrowbody
Boeing launched the 737 narrowbody in the 1960s (first entering service in 1967). At the time, this was a new direction for aircraft design. Its twin engines responded to the increasing interest in efficiency, and the engine placement under the wing diverged from the competition and went on to be the most popular design.
Boeing developed the aircraft through several upgrades and variants, and sales increased significantly. Airbus had already seen success with the A300 and A310, and saw a gap in the market for a competing twin engine narrowbody, built in Europe. The A320 was its response to this, with a design project starting tin the late 1970s. The aircraft first flew in February 1987 and entered service in April 1988 with Air France.
The A320ceo family
The mid-sized A320 was the first aircraft to be launched. The aircraft was always envisioned as a series of different sized variants (as was the Boeing 737 Classic Series it followed). The longer A321 entered service in 1994 and the shorter A319 in 1996. The shortest variant, the A318, followed later in 2016. They took the “ceo” (current engine option) designation after the launch of the later “neo” (new engine option) series.
The four variants differ mainly in length and range. They were all offered with the same CFM International CFM56 engines (with an International Aero Engines option for the A319, A320, and A321, and a Pratt & Whitney alternative for the A318). Typical two class capacity is:
- 107 on the A318
- 124 on the A319
- 150 on the A320
- 185 on the A321
Upgrades with the A320neo family
Technology advances, and a growing focus on fuel efficiency in particular soon led to the next iteration of the A320. As Boeing did with subsequent 737 variants, Airbus kept the same basic design and operation and made changes that would ensure it kept the same type rating.
Airbus launched an upgrade program (originally as the A320E) in 2006. The new aircrafts first flight was in September 2014, and the A320neo entered service with Lufthansa in 2016. As the with ceo series, Airbus followed the initial mid-sized A320neo with different capacity (and range) options. The larger A321neo entered service in May 2017, and the smaller A319neo not until early 2019. The smaller A318 variant was dropped for this series.
The main differences with the neo are in the engines and the overall efficiency of the aircraft. The whole neo series is re-engined with either CFM International LEAP-1A or Pratt & Whitney PW1100G engines. Efficiency savings also come from new, large winglets, aerodynamic improvements and overall weight savings. The overall efficiency gain experienced over the A320ceo is around 15% – with some operators (including Lufthansa) claiming as much as 20%.
Going further with the A321LR and A321XLR
No further A320 series has yet been introduced. Airbus has instead focussed on modifications to the larger A321 to meet the market demand for improved range. The A321LR was introduced in 2014 (and entered service in 2018). This is modified to include three auxiliary fuel tanks and increases maximum range from 6,760 kilometres to 7,400 kilometres. This opens up many new narrowbody point to point route options, including transatlantic. JetBlue has made good use of this with its new A321 routes.
The next development is the A321XLR with a further increased range of up to 8,300 kilometres. This was announced in early 2018 and is currently in testing stages. Deliveries are expected from 2024 and there are already over 500 aircraft on order. New route possibilities here go much further than transatlantic. There has bee strong interest too from Middle Eastern, Indian and Asian airlines with many new narrowbody routes likely. What passengers make of these longer flights on a smaller aircraft remains to be seen, but the economics for operators looks good.
The competition with Boeing
Boeing and Airbus, of course, dominate the commercial narrowbody and widebody market, with competing aircraft on offer in all markets. The A320 and Boeing 737 are a prominent example of this strong competition.
For a long time, Boeing was ahead in narrowbody orders and sales. However, Airbus has caught up quickly in recent years. As of September 2022, Airbus has delivered 10,516 A320 family aircraft whilst Boeing has delivered 11,002 737 aircraft. For orders though, Airbus has reached 16,631 in total – against Boeings’ 14,512.
Boeing has been held back somewhat in recent years by the problems with its 737 MAX series. Although the aircraft is now flying again, challenges still remain with certification for the MAX 7 and MAX 10 aircraft. The MAX 7 may never fly, and the MAX 10 could require a separate type rating. This, along with the launch and success of the A321XLR, was a factor in Boeing dropping its plans for the NMA aircraft recently. No doubt, it will return with a new option, but will be behind Airbus in the long-haul narrowbody market when it does.
The A320 has done exceptionally well to overtake the Boeing 737 in orders, with a much shorter sales period. With Boeings’ recent struggles and lack of a long-range competitor, the A320 looks set to continue to do very well. Airbus launched the aircraft as an alternative, newer, and more efficient option than the 737. It has managed to stay ahead with this through the developments and new variants launches.
Airbus orders and deliveries: https://www.airbus.com/en/products-services/commercial-aircraft/market/orders-and-deliveries
Boeing orders and deliveries: https://www.boeing.com/commercial/#/orders-deliveries
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