Lufthansa’s A321XLR impression shaped by perceived shortcomings

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Lufthansa Group CEO Carsten Spohr recently flew a seemingly unlikely airline: Qatar Airways. The Doha-based carrier epitomizes the German giant’s struggle against Gulf super-connectors. Emirates is larger, but Qatar Airways has arguably surpassed on product and decreased on financials. Qatar’s growth challenges Lufthansa’s capacity-discipline mindset, and Qatar has made blue-chip investments, including in Lufthansa rival IAG.

So how did Spohr find his flight? “We were in this, to be honest, good business class of Qatar Airways…the second best airline in the world after Lufthansa,” he said at a recent company presentation.

His flight to Addis Ababa on an Airbus narrowbody made for a timely comparison in light of Airbus launching the A321XLR and amassing 243 commitments for the long-range narrowbody.

Lufthansa Group has bought most Airbus aircraft variants, so there was considerable attention and surprise when Spohr called the A321XLR “niche” and thought its options in the group were few. He is guided by numbers but also personal experience, including his recent Qatar Airways flight.

“It just doesn’t feel right to be on a narrowbody for 4.5 hours. The noise, vibrations, the toilets – it’s just not a widebody experience,” he said.

While the new XLR pushes nine-hour narrowbody flying, there have long been narrowbody flights longer than the 4.5 hours that Lufthansa’s Spohr experienced on Qatar Airways. If widebody #PaxEx infers comfort and premium products, some would point to a variety of narrowbody aircraft matching a widebody experience.

Indeed, TAP co-owner David Neeleman made this very case in an an interview with Runway Girl Network,  saying that when it comes to twin-aisle aircraft “way too much” attention is given to “the grandiose space in the cabin”.

“What’s most important,” he added, “is personal space and what you have going on in your personal space.”

For now, one major premium narrowbody market is transcontinental US flights, which have lie-flat business class seats. Most are not direct aisle access, but neither are some of Lufthansa’s current widebody business class seats. It might be argued that Lufthansa’s historically inferior product makes them more sensitive on this topic.

While perceived experience is debatable, Lufthansa’s numerical assessment is more firm. It already passed over the A321LR, a decision that Spohr said “was not much of an issue”. The LR would have enabled east coast US flights from Brussels, but not from the group’s main hub at Frankfurt.

The XLR’s longer range opens up more of the transatlantic, but Spohr identified Africa as the XLR’s opportunity in the group. “It might be a niche product, even for us, but it won’t be a game changer,” he said.

Transatlantic and other markets are good for cargo, whose revenue contribution is higher to Lufthansa than other European or North American airlines. Of the 243 XLR commitments, many are from airlines or groups without major cargo units, such as Flynas, Indigo Partners and JetBlue. They account for almost a third of the commitments so far.

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About half of Lufthansa’s cargo is carried in the hold of passenger planes, contributing 10-15% of flight revenue.

“This aircraft is not a cargo provider,” Lufthansa Chief Commercial Officer – Network Airlines Harry Hohmeister said. “So why should I take a maybe 0.3% cost advantage against a 10-15% revenue disadvantage as Lufthansa?” He drew an important distinction that the group’s impression of the XLR may not be shared by peers. “Of course others might not have a cargo organization like we have.”

Boeing has to consider how much cargo capability to give its NMA, which the A321XLR is trying to preempt. North American airlines favor a passenger-focused NMA while Asian airlines want room for cargo.

Frankfurt is a logistics hub for Germany, the world’s third-largest exporting nation, where a third of goods by value leave the country by air.

“For cargo in aviation, Frankfurt is what London is for the passenger business,” Spohr said. “If you cannot make money here in cargo or in passengers in London, you better leave the industry.”

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9 Comments

  1. William

    I don’t understand Sphors dismissal. The range of the A321XLR is 4680Nm 8700Km. All of the German cities are between 6100-6650km of New York. I realise there are nasty headwinds but surely not 100 knot headwinds. I think Herr Spohr May be surprised when A321XLR operators start using Nuremberg, Dusseldorf,,Hamburg or Berlin Airports (if they ever get the Berlin finished) . Granted the A321XLR would have been nicer with 5000Nm range. It may get that with engine improvements. I suspect within 10 years a second generation of geared turbofans and perfected composite wing will make this class of aircraft as common on international rotes as they now are on domestic routes.

  2. Howard Miller

    I can’t say that I disagree with Herr Spohr’s comments in terms of wide-bodies offering an overall superior sense of quiet and comfort when compared to narrow-bodies for any flights, let alone flights longer than 3-hours.

    Of course, this is being said by someone old enough to remember how much better ANY flights were when they were aboard the wide-body Lockheed L-1011s, McDonnell Douglas DC-10s, Airbus A300s and Boeing 767s when these aircraft were routinely flown domestically, even from airports that haven’t seen a wide body on their tarmacs in years such as New York’s LaGuardia, where Delta’s, Eastern’s and TWA’s L-1011s (especially between mid-November to late April for flights to Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando and believe it or not, even West Palm Beach [when hardstands were used and baggage claim was outdoors, too!]) were routinely seen to the Florida cities just noted, plus Atlanta, Houston, Saint Louis, and sometimes even Tampa or Bermuda!

    Or American, United and National (later Pan Am) Airlines’ DC-10s to places like Buffalo (twice daily for years), Syracuse, Raleigh/Durham, Toronto, Chicago, Dallas for American; Chicago (often 2-3x daily) for United; and of course, Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach for National/Pan Am.

    Indeed, back when competition existed in the US domestic airline industry, National for many years boasted that its LGA-south Florida winter schedule was served exclusively with wide body DC-10s daily (except Tuesday & Wednesday when Boeing 727s were used for some flights on those two days when fewer people flew to/from South Florida), complete with a long running advertising campaign that crowed it flew “DC-10 times daily” between LGA, FLL & MIA!

    So, yeah – in that regard, Herr Spohr is correct; all things being equal, a wide body, to me at least, is far preferable.

    As to noise and vibration, no argument on that either.

    If anything, some of the noisiest flights aboard narrow bodies (NOT using T-Tails with rear mounted engines which are altogether horrible) have been aboard A321s, with one back in 2012 or 2013 aboard legacy US Airways between NYC-CLT that was so horrible (vibrations and other noise for a window seat just aft of the wing) it gave me a splitting headache and I avoided that model plane on any airline thereafter altogether until recently!

    And yet still, when looking ahead to a trans con trip now being considered, for us, chances are it’s going to be aboard Delta since it has a vast selection of wide bodies that we’d much prefer over any narrow body for our 6 or so hour slogs between coasts versus everyone else that flies narrow bodies, or United, whose 777s are those hideous 10-abreast, densified Boeing beasts that actually were the final two flights my partner took for his trans cons before he switched exclusively to Delta for his cross country business trips as he HATED those 10-abreast 777s even in E+

    HATED.

    So again, in that regard, I agree with Spohr – I’ll avoid a narrow body whenever I can.

    And even for trans cons, where narrow bodies long ago displaced the 747s, L-1011s, DC-10s and 767s that routinely flew those routes from my hometown, NYC, I’ll choose a wide body every time over a narrow body for flights that long.

    But, hey, that’s just me! Then again, I’m also old enough to know just how much narrow bodies destroyed flying once they became capable of flying 2,500 miles – let alone 3,000 miles.

    So, 4,700 nm (that’s 5,400 miles for those of us who aren’t flying the plane or navigating ocean going vessels) aboard a narrow body?

    As we say here in NYC – “FUGHEDDABOUDIT!”

    Or simply, “No thanks! Hard Pass! NOT a chance!” – for me at least (unless guaranteed a seat in biz class, that is).

    • William

      The only criticism I can accept is Sphors concerns over Cargo. A standard A321neo can carry 10 LD3-45/46. An A32LR with 3 removable ACT tanks only has 7 and an A321XLR with the permanent Rear Centre Tank (RCT) has 8. If Airbus could restore the full 10 container capacity and if the range was a Littlemore (say 5000Nm) Id say his criticisms would evaporate. I believe a LD3-45 can average 35 bags so 6 should be enough I imagine. The PW1100G engined A321LR I flew from Manilla to Sydney was very quiet. I’m sure there is less sound deadening in the narrow bodies but the LEAP 1A and PW1100G engines now make up for it.

      • Tom R

        This does not apply for LH, but on the flip side of this you have AA, UA etc running ancient 757s over to Western Europe, Germany included.
        I’d take a new and much quieter A321 over a 757 any time. I loved the 757 at the time but having taken AA 757 over to the UK from NYC a few times in the last few years it feels like you’re stepping into a time warp & your ears take a beating.
        I’ve taken B6 A321s Transcon (only about 1h flight time less each direction than NY to UK) many times and it has been much quieter and comfortable especially given they have better legroom in coach than the Transatlantic carriers (including wide-bodies) & an excellent business product… This mentioned in the article, and touched on by the comment above, about personal space. If you have a comfortable hard product then I’d take that over the now 17″ width some of the 787s going across to Europe are cramming in with 30-31” pitch.

  3. JGordon

    He is right. The narrow body single aisle is a lousy way to fly, even for 3 hours. Service is slower and access to the bathrooms are limited with the cart in the aisle. Getting crammed up against the window is bad enough. Competition is good and maybe perhaps those companies with the new XLR toy will lose out. It helps flying with a more substantial airplane. Wow, that will be miserable as well for the flight attendants.

    • William

      I was on a recent 8 hour flight to Manilla from Sydney on an A321LR with Philippine Airlines. This is 6200km as the crow flys. They also ran a Manilla to Melbourne service but it was so popular they had to upsize to a A330. I was very comfortable in economy class. Now to address to your issues. The A320 series tends to have nice wide 18 inch seat that makes a big difference. I normally prefer aisle seats because of better access but I was surprisingly comfortable in window and was rewarded by a beautiful view of Sydney on return. My worst flights ever were a B747 from Johannesburg to Sydney and a B737 from Moscow to Yakutsk Siberia, both with narrower seats, you just can’t squirm into a comfortable position. The PAL aircraft are configured in 2 class with lie flat business class. Now to address your issues. Toilet access was not a problem precisely because it was a long flight. There just aren’t that many people in economy class and in a long 6-8 hour flight there is plenty of time to go both before and after meal service. In the entire flight there were only two people (I was one) who had to get from the toilet back to their seat while service was in progress. The flight attendants just moved the cart back a little. My worst flight for toilet access was Sydney to Melbourne on QANTAS because by the time the excellent breakfast was served followed by the diuretic coffee you are pined in your seat waiting for tray to be removed before you can get to the facilities by which time the preparations for landing are in progress. Its the short flight that’s the problem not the single aisle. I’ve been stuck behind service trolleys (both aisles) in A380 and B747. Meal service: We had substantial hot main meal from the galley and then one of those heated mini meals that was quick to serve before landing. Its enough. In terms of Comfort the A321XLR will improve it because an 6-10 hour direct point to point is always better than hub and spoke that is going to take 3 hours longer. Mind you I belong to an older generation that thought the B707-320B was a breakthrough, for 20 years narrow bodies ruled the oceans.

  4. Glen Towler

    It can’t be worse than being in economy on a 787. With the really narrow seats on those aircraft. No one is forcing Lufthansa to buy the A321 XLR but I have a feeling they will.

    • William

      The discussion has now drifted into 10 abreast seating for the A350 to compete with the 19 abreast 777X. I suspect Airbus May be playing with sidewalls and insulation. The A321XLR with its inalterable 6 abreast single and 18 inch seat pan may become the go to preference for those who can’t afford premium seating. I find that anything less than 18 inches at the seat pan and 20 inches at the shoulders I’m forced to squirm into awkward positions. If I’m seated next to a male of the same 6ft stature I’m extremely uncomfortable. If it’s a slight female next to me I’m embarrassed at butting into her area. I’ll avoid dense aircraft at all costs and urge others to do the same.

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