The Hero We Never Expected: The Rise of the Airbus A321 in the U.S. Market

The first A321neo with Pratt and Whitney engines performs its maiden flight (Photo: Airbus)

When I was younger, I sought to fly on as many aircraft types as I possibly could. As an infrequent flyer at the time, every new plane I flew on was special. Planning my future travel and thinking back on my younger self, I am reminded of one aircraft that I was so eager to fly on, and eventually did, but has now become so common in the U.S. that I find it interesting that the plane had eluded me for so long. That aircraft is the Airbus A321.

The Largest Member of the Family

The Airbus A321, the largest member of the Airbus A320 family, was offered as a way to compete with Boeing’s 757-200 aircraft. Both aircrafts were able to carry a similar amount of passengers, however, the 757 had the advantage of the A321 due to its larger range and greater passenger capacity. Boeing was also the preferred manufacturer of the American airline industry, with airlines going for the Boeing’s 757 over the Airbus A321.

Phoenix-based America West Airlines had a primarily Airbus fleet but preferred the Boeing 757 due to its better performance in the “hot and high” conditions of Phoenix and Las Vegas. The airline never acquired an A321 for those reasons, a fad followed by many airlines of the time, but did maintain a healthy A319 and A320 fleet which were interchangeable to its pilots.

However, a major benefit of the A321 was that it was basically an extension of the A320, making pilot training and maintenance more streamlined and inexpensive. Pilots already having a type rating on an A320 could fly the A321 without an additional type rating and mechanics would not have to be retrained on the A321, saving airlines a lot of money. Low-cost carriers prefer buying aircraft of the same family for exactly these reasons.

Building Up a Hub in the West

Ten years ago, if you were flying on an Airbus A321 in the U.S., you’d be flying on either US Airways or Spirit Airlines. US Airways used the plane as one of its workhorses, in addition to the A320 and A319. The plane would fly the airline’s popular routes, including transcontinental and Carribean routes from Philadelphia and Charlotte. Spirit Airlines’ A321s were less widespread as the ultra-low-cost carrier only ordered 30 aircraft.

An American Airlines A321 departs from MIA (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Ryan Ewing)

In an unexpected but logical move, US Airways used the plane on short flights from its Phoenix hub to the West Coast. While it seems counterintuitive to fly a larger aircraft on such short routes, usually less than 2 hours in duration, US Airways knew that a good amount of its travelers would be flying through Phoenix to get to points west. The high passenger flow through Phoenix warranted a bigger plane on those routes and the A321 obliged.

Lacking hubs in popular destinations in California, the airline couldn’t offer non-stop service to the Coast from all the cities that it served. Instead, it fed Phoenix with smaller aircraft on less-demanded routes from cities across the country, then connected the passengers onto the larger A321 to send them westward and vice versa. The aircraft would become a staple on the Phoenix to Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco routes.

The US Airways retro livery at DCA (Photo: Ryan Ewing)

The airline used the A321 to build up its Phoenix hub and still uses them on those routes today. Ironically, while America West shunned the plane, US Airways embraced it. In its lifetime, US Airways ordered 121 A321s, many of them in use today with a fresh coat of paint flying for American Airlines, which merged with US Airways in 2015.

Minting the A321 in the U.S. Market

Outside of the U.S., many other carriers had already realized the benefits that the A321 had to offer. It wasn’t until JetBlue Airways pioneered the charge to bring A321s to the mainstream in the U.S. domestic market. In 2013, JetBlue took delivery of its first A321. This A321 was unique to the American market in as it was the first A321 with Sharklets to fly in the U.S. JetBlue also put its signature twist on the plane, including its famed DirecTV.

JetBlue initially used the aircraft on its New York to Fort Lauderdale route, eventually expanding it to popular routes across the U.S., the Carribean, and Mexico. The A321 also gave JetBlue its opportunity to introduce its first premium cabin, dubbed Mint Class, on its longest and most popular flights.

JetBlue’s first A321 (Photo: JetBlue)

Mint Class features lie-flat seats, in-flight meals, complimentary premium drink service, and a larger seat. While initially used on transcontinental flights from New York-JFK to San Francisco and Los Angeles, JetBlue now uses its Mint A321s on its most popular routes, with fares usually less than first or business class on legacy carriers and a more consistent product.

An Emerging Trend in U.S. Aviation

Following JetBlue’s lead, almost all U.S. carriers started investing in the A321 with Sharklets. First, American Airlines began building their A321 fleet off the existing A321s acquired in the merger with US Airways. American’s new A321s with Sharkets have two variants: A321S and A321T.

The A321S is the two-class cabin variant of the plane, used on standard domestic routes. The A321T is the three-class cabin variant of the plane, used on transcontinental flights from New York-JFK to Los Angeles and San Francisco. American had used the A321T to replace its larger, but aging Boeing 767-200 on routes it flew too. The A321 also changed American’s Hawaii approach, using the A321S on all its flights to Hawaii from Los Angeles.

Following American Airlines was Delta Air Lines, purchasing the A321 to complement its existing fleet of A319s and A320s. The plane is still in its infancy with the airline, with the first A321 being delivered in 2016, but is used on short-medium range routes. With the A321, Delta started the modernization process for the cabins of its A320 family fleet, featuring mood lighting, larger storage bins, and seatback TVs.

A Delta A321 rests on a hard stand outside of the airline’s TechOps facility in Atlanta (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Alex Navitsky)

Virgin America acquired the Neo variant of the aircraft to provide a larger alternative to its A319s and A320s currently used on its transcontinental routes. The airline was the first to receive the brand new A321neo from Airbus. The aircraft also helped open up Hawaii to the airline, with Virgin using the plane for some of its Hawaii flights from California. The future of the airline’s A321s, however, is unknown as the airline just completed a merger with Alaska Airlines, an airline with a historically all-Boeing fleet.

Virgin America’s A321neo marks the first delivery for the next generation aircraft (Photo: Airbus)

Lastly, Hawaiian Airlines announced that it would purchase 16 A321neos for its flight from Hawaii to the U.S. mainland. Currently, Hawaiian only uses three aircraft in its fleet: the Boeing 717-200, Boeing 767-300 and Airbus A330-200, with the two latter aircraft being used for trans-Pacific flights.The airline recently took delivery of its first A321neo.

Hawaiian was in need of a smaller aircraft that could service less-demanded cities profitably. The distance between Hawaii and the mainland was the ultimate obstacle, as the flight from Hawaii to California is entirely over water with flew places the aircraft could divert to. However, the A321Neo has the range and optimal passenger load to make those flights possible for the airline.

A Different Kind of A321 Fleet

Keeping in line with its historically primarily Airbus fleet, Frontier Airlines also jumped on the A321 train. The addition of the A321 has been instrumental in Frontier’s recent expansion. Long-range flights in a high-density configuration has allowed Frontier to expand its point-to-point network and maintain its famous “low fares done right” approach to air travel.

While most of the U.S. legacy carriers purchased the A321 to show off its new technology and amenities, ultra-low-cost carrier Frontier Airlines did just the opposite with its new A321s. Furthering its position as a ULCC, Frontier engaged in a fleet-wide downgrading of its Airbus aircraft. Every Frontier aircraft features streamline seats with pre-set recline, a miniature tray table, and no in-flight entertainment. The A321 is no different.

However, what the Denver-based airline’s A321s lack in passenger amenities, it makes up for in performance and fuel efficiency. All of Frontier’s A321s feature fuel-saving Sharklets and are not weighed down by unnecessary amenities. Frontier is able to carry 230 passengers on its A321 in a high-density configuration, decreasing the cost per passenger. All of Frontier’s A321 fleet also feature the airline’s new livery.

Frontier’s parent company, Indigo Partners, has also noticed the success of the A321, placing 157 orders for the new A321neo with an unspecified number going to Frontier. The order is only one part of Airbus’ largest ever purchase order, with the total purchase valued at over 45 billion dollars.

Crossing the Pond in an A321

When it comes to transatlantic flights, most people rarely think of the A321. On these long haul flights, large widebodies dominate the skies over the Atlantic, leaving little room for narrowbodies such as the A321. However, a recent trend has been emerging in this market as well. Several low-cost carriers have been introducing flights between the U.S. and Europe using the A321.

WOW Air pioneered this model, starting flights from Newark, Boston, and Baltimore to its hub in Rekyavik, Iceland using the A321. From Iceland, passengers could connect to any one of WOW’s destinations in mainland Europe and beyond. The low-cost airline now services 14 U.S. destinations, with most of them featuring the A321, and is expanding to major airports such as New York’s JFK airport.

A WOW Air A321 (Photo: BriYYZ from Toronto, Canada (WOW Air Airbus A321-200 TF-SON) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)
Primera Air is expanding on WOW Air’s model but is instead providing direct transatlantic service from the United States and Canada to Europe without the stop in Iceland. Up until this point, most low-cost airlines, such as OpenSkies and La Compagnie, have been using the aging, inefficient Boeing 757 for these flights. However, the fuel efficiency and range of Primera’s A321neos make the routes more profitable than with a 757.

WOW Air and Primera Air follow the low-cost model, selling tickets at ultra-low prices and providing extra services at extra cost so that passengers only pay for what they need. This service has allowed people who have been denied low-cost service to Europe up until this point to travel to Europe and beyond for cheaper than ever before. Both airlines have chosen Newark and Boston as starting points, expanding to other cities in the future.

Norwegian, another player in the low-cost transatlantic market, has been the only outlier. Instead of choosing the A321, they chose the new Boeing 737 Max and the Boeing 787 Dreamliner for their transatlantic long-haul operations. The airline uses the 787 out of major cities, such as New York and Los Angeles, and uses the 737 Max for its operations out of smaller airports, such as Newburgh, Providence, and Hartford.

However, Norwegian has recently signed a deal with Airbus to be the launch customer on the Airbus A321LR. The airline has stated it plans to use the extended range aircraft to service farther destinations within the U.S. from Europe. According to Airbus, the A321LR can service routes up to 4,000nm, opening up a world of possibilities for the airline and connecting a new segment of passengers between the U.S. and Europe.

The Hero We Needed

Just five years ago, the Airbus A321 was relatively unknown to most U.S. travelers, unless you were flying on US Airways or a handful of Spirit Airlines flights. Now, the A321 can be seen on some of the U.S.’ most popular routes, crisscrossing the country on a daily basis between New York and California and flying up and down the East Coast between Florida and New York. The A321 is even the flagship of the fleet for some airlines.

My first flight on the A321 was US Airways flight 27 from Phoenix to Los Angeles on Aug. 14, 2011. I had not flown on a non-US Airways A321 until 4 years later when I flew on a JetBlue A321 from Fort Lauderdale to New York in 2015. At the time, the A321 seemed so new and unique to me. Today, I’ve flown on 17 Airbus A321s on US Airways, JetBlue Airways and Frontier Airlines with the aircraft slowly becoming my most frequented plane.

While Airbus may have once considered the A321 to be a failure in the U.S. market, the aircraft has since become a household name. The A321 is opening up destinations previously inaccessible and unprofitable for lower costs than ever before. Airlines have based their entire business models and route expansions around this plane, marking the beginning of a new era in aviation centered around one aircraft: the Airbus A321.

Thomas Pallini

Thomas Pallini

Tom has been flying for as long as he can remember. His first flight memory was on a Song Airlines 757 flying from LaGuardia to Orlando. Back then, he was afraid to fly because he thought you needed to jump off the plane in order to get off. Some years later, Tom is now a seasoned traveler, often flying to places just for the fun of it. Most of the time, he'll never leave the airport on his trips. If he's not at home or at work as a Line Service Technician at Long Island MacArthur Airport, he's off flying somewhere, but only for the day.
Thomas Pallini