A321XLR inflight

Exploring the PaxEx possibilities as Icelandair goes A321neo

Details and Design banner with text on graph paper backgroundIcelandair, a longtime Boeing operator, is gearing up to start adding Airbus aircraft to its fleet in the middle of the decade.

To that end, the carrier has entered advanced negotiations to lease four Airbus A321LR twinjets, the long-range version of the A321neo, with a start date sometime in 2025.

It has also inked a memorandum of understanding to purchase 13 of the A321neo’s extra-long-range version, the A321XLR, with purchase rights for an additional 12 aircraft. Deliveries of the A321XLR are expected to start in 2029.

“The A321XLR aircraft has a range of up to 4,700 nautical miles (8,700 km), allowing Icelandair to operate it on its long-range destinations with opportunities to enter new markets,” explains the airline, noting meanwhile that “the A321LR aircraft has a range of up to 4,000 nautical miles (7,400 km) and will thus be able to service Icelandair’s current route network.” 

“With the acquisition of the Airbus aircraft, Icelandair will complete the replacement of the Boeing 757,” which has been the mainstay of Icelandair’s fleet for decades, notes the carrier. Icelandair also flies Boeing 767s and 737 MAX aircraft.

Following the first deliveries from Airbus, the company will operate a mixed fleet of Airbus and Boeing aircraft, though it has signaled its interest in adding further Airbus aircraft down the road.

Onboard, the 757-200s slated for retirement offer 22 recliners, with a width of 20.5″ and a minimum pitch of 40″, in the carrier’s premium cabin known as Saga Premium, plus 162 economy seats according to its seat map, although the airline’s press release totals this to 183 and not 184 passengers — likely an averaging issue around the configurations of the aircraft, where the number of seats in each cabin varies by two or three. Its 737 MAX aircraft offer 16 seats in Saga Premium and either 144 (MAX 8) or 156 (MAX 9) in economy.

As for the forthcoming A321neos, “the aircraft has around 190 seats in Icelandair’s layout”, says the airline. That’s on the lower end of capacity for an A321neo, which can seat 244 in all-economy max-pax “misery mode”.

It would thus seem that Icelandair is planning to either be very generous with seat pitch (its 757s are pitched at 32” in economy, while the 737 MAX is specified at 31-32”), will add an extra legroom economy section, or will add substantially more Saga Premium recliners. Any of these choices would be a positive for the passenger experience.

To be clear, Saga is much more akin to domestic first aboard narrowbodies in the US, or international premium economy, versus international business class.

As a comparison in the recliners-plus-economy market, Delta’s A321neo seats 194 (20 recliners, 42 extra-legroom economy, 132 economy) while American’s A321neo seats 196 (20, 47 and 129 seats in each class).

Icelandair Saga on the 767

Saga aboard an Icelandair 767-300ER. Image: Jason Rabinowitz

Given that Icelandair’s new MAXes all feature seatback inflight entertainment systems, it would seem likely that this will carry over onto the A321neo fleet, although the specific outfit of the leased A321LRs in 2025 may end up being different to the purchased A321XLRs from 2029.

Its MAXes also offer Viasat Ka-band connectivity, and given the airline’s route network this would seem a shoo-in for onboard Internet for the neos.

As RGN readers are well aware, Airbus also now offers its sparkling new Airspace cabin for the A320neo family, including modernised sidewall lining and a new lighting concept from Diehl, as well as large overhead bins and a spectacular entryway built by AVIC subsidiary FACC.

A320 Airspace entrance area with a diamond pattern on the ceiling, a Hero Light at the entry way and spectacular blue, purple and pink mood lighting.

Icelandair could easily create a mood lighting scenario that capitalises on its national heritage, as it has done aboard its Hekla Aurora plane, a 757 with an interior lighting scheme that mimics the Aurora Borealis for which the country is famous.

Interior of the Icelandair 575. Soft blue, green and white lighting flood the cabin to emulate the Northern Lights. Using the LEDs, a unique pattern is created on the ceiling.

An encounter with the “Northern Lights” on board. Image: Icelandair

Notably, Airbus is in the midst of conducting inflight validation of the cabin-related aspects of the new A321XLR.

“This testing focuses on more than just the highly visible Airspace branding elements such as new overhead stowage compartments (OHSC), ceiling panels etc. but also the numerous ‘behind the scenes’ new system adaptations and features relating to thermal comfort, ventilation, water & waste, sound insulation, and so on,” explains the airframer.

“Together, all these aspects, among others, will contribute to achieving the best possible passenger and flight-crew experience, as well as airline and airport performance and flexibility given the Xtra Long-Range routes on which this aircraft will routinely fly.”


For Boeing and the MAX, Icelandair’s decision to tap Airbus for fleet renewal is telling. Of all the major longterm Boeing customers, it should notionally have been the one that didn’t need the extra capabilities of the neo over the MAX. That Icelandair has chosen the neo highlights how Boeing is disadvantaged in the longer range narrowbody market.

Icelandair has been operating medium-haul narrowbody flights to create longhaul connections over Reykjavik since its predecessor Loftleiðir’s Canadair CL-44 turboprops in the 1960s, which seated 189 passengers — roughly the same as the 757-200 and the plans for the A321neos. It added 767-300 aircraft in 2016, and also operates Dash-8 aircraft on domestic and some shorter international routes (including to Greenland).

The A321LRs in 2025 will enable Icelandair to replicate the longer routes operated by its 757-200s but outside the effective range of the 737 MAX; the arrival of the A321XLR adds some 700–800 nautical miles of range over the 757 to the Icelandair fleet. 

That’s a potentially lucrative swathe of routes nominally including Japan, China, India, the Middle East and Latin America, and also opens up the question of the airline’s future fleeting, and indeed whether it might consider offering a lie-flat product up front.

Icelandair has used the stretched 757-300 and the flight deck commonality between the 757 and 767 to its capacity benefit over the last decades. But fundamentally, it is a rather small airline to operate two separate fleets of Airbus and Boeing aircraft, especially if it seeks to realise the efficiency benefits of common crew pooling.

While Icelandair may not need the neo’s longer range compared with the MAX for most of its routes, with the substantially improved commonality between the A321neo and the A330 (neo and current ‘ceo’ versions), it will be informative to see how Icelandair moves for its future fleeting: adding older A330ceos or new A330neos perhaps? Supplementing the MAX with ceo and neo members of the A320 family? As ever, it will be an airline to watch.

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Featured image credited to Airbus