The Airbus A321 has decades of successful engineering behind it. The stretched member of the A320 family leveraged modern systems and configuration from older variants and mated them to a longer fuselage with better engines. Today, the A321neo outsells the A320neo by a considerable margin. This fact is a testament to how airlines love the range, passenger capacity, and reliability.
Bottom Line Up Front
Sometimes a small change can make a huge difference, which happened when Airbus stretched the A320 fuselage to create the A321. After equipping powerful engines, the A321 has become one of the most popular airline variants in the world, with over 6300 orders. The combination of good range, high reliability, and performance make this aircraft a true winner in the modern airliner market.
Airbus A321 / Specs
The Airbus A321 builds on the successful A320 family. The initial A321 variants stretched the fuselage to 146 ft and had a maximum takeoff weight of 183000 lbs.
When the A320-200 brought about more powerful engines, the MTOW rose to 205000 lbs. The wingspan stayed at the same 117 ft 5 in from previous models. All Airbus A321 variants have a crew of two and share a type rating with the A320, A319, and A318.
Early variants of the Airbus A321 seat 185 to 220 passengers. The new A321neo considerably increased this, with 206 in a two-class arrangement and 240 in a single class.
All A321 variants come with two engine options. The first variants, produced between 1992 and 2022, could use either the CFM International CFM56-5B or the IAE V2530 series of high-bypass turbofans. The takeoff thrust rating on the CFM56-5B variants on the A321 ranges from 30000 lbf (CFM-5B1) to 32000 lbf (CFM-5B3). The V2530 outputs 29900 lbf (V2530-A5) to 31600 lbf (V2533-A5).
Starting in 2016, Airbus began transitioning to the A321neo variant. The “neo” suffix stands for New Engine Option. These aircraft can use the most advanced engines in the market, the CFM International LEAP-1A or the Pratt & Whitney PW1130G. The LEAP variants that equip the A321neo have a takeoff thrust rating of 32160 lbf, whereas the PW1130G series output 33110 lbf.
I will explore the finer differences between the engine options later in this article.
The fuel capacity of the Airbus A321 depends on whether operators install auxiliary tanks. The A321 has an internal fuel capacity of 6350 gallons. This can go up to 7930 gals with modifications. The baseline Airbus A321neo has 6260 gallons of fuel, but the A321XLR takes this up to a whopping 8700 gal.
The Airbus A321 is a stretched A320, so many of its features are shared. The aircraft uses a blend of composite materials and aluminum alloys in its construction. The wings have a 25º sweep and a fuselage width of 156 inches. The manufacturing process happens across Europe, with the parts put together at facilities in Spain and France.
The A320 family was the first airliner to introduce side-stick controls, giving the flight deck its distinctive look. I am a massive fan of this arrangement, as it frees up room in the cockpit and makes handling less physically demanding. Using these controls is only possible because of the digital fly-by-wire system.
Airbus pioneered fly-by-wire flight control systems in the airline industry, building on French experience with the Dassault Mirage 2000C. I know pilots who prefer the predictable handling and safety of the fly-by-wire system. Still, some also miss the direct feedback from aircraft with conventional controls.
The cockpit has six screens, two in front of each pilot and a pair stacked vertically down the middle. Airbus transitioned to LCD screens in 2003 after a brief period using CRT displays.
Airbus A321 / Prices
On August 2022, the base price for the Airbus A321ceo stood at $118.3 million. This is almost a fifth more than an A320 from the same generation. The newer A321neo costs $129.5 million. The Boeing 737 MAX 9 models sit within the same price range.
Airbus A321 / Performance and Handling
All Airbus A321 variants have an economical cruise speed of Mach 0.78. The aircraft has a maximum Mach number of Mach 0.82 and a service ceiling of 39100 ft to 39800 ft depending on the engine option. The Airbus A321 requires 6522 ft of runway to take off.
The Airbus A321-200 has a range of 3100 nautical miles. The baseline A321neo improved this to 3650 nmi thanks to the new, more efficient engines. Airbus pushed further with the A321LR, featuring auxiliary tanks that allowed the aircraft to reach 4000 nautical miles. The A321XLR, featuring a new integral tank, can fly out to 4700 nmi.
The traditional climb profile involves a climb at 250 knots until 10000 ft, after which the crew accelerates to 300 KTAS and climbs until the crossover altitude of around 29000 ft. After that, the A321 slows down to Mach 0.78 as it levels at 39000 ft.
Like most modern airliners, the A321 can complete this entire process on autopilot, using data fed into the flight management system (FMS) to calculate the exact altitudes and speeds for a given configuration.
Because of the side-sticks, the takeoff run has peculiarities pilots coming from aircraft with yokes may find amusing. I know I did the first time I learned about this. As they reach V1, A321 pilots let go of the throttle like their peers. Nothing unusual here. The awkward part is that while other pilots put their free hand on the yoke, Airbus jockeys already have their other hand on the stick. Typically this means resting the throttle hand on your lap until you are off, but I have heard the feeling takes time to get used to.
The flight control system of the Airbus A321 provides good handling and responsiveness but with protections that prevent pilots from exceeding the envelope. In flight, the fly-by-wire will not let the crew go beyond 67 degrees in bank angle, 30 degrees up and 15 down in pitch, and exceed a load factor of 2.5G.
If the air data computer detects a stall, it brings the nose to a level position and commands full throttle. If the aircraft hits predetermined high-speed limits, the jet gently raises its nose to prevent damage. While the idea of a large jet flying itself may sound weird, the transition between having control and the safety limits taking over is very smooth.
Airbus A321 / Modifications and Upgrades
The Airbus A321 family splits into two families, primarily defined by the engines installed. The first is the original Airbus A321, which entered service in 1994 with German flagship carrier Lufthansa.
In 2017, Airbus delivered the first A321neo (“New Engine Option”) to Virgin America. Once the Airbus A321neo entered the scene, the pan-European company retroactively branded the original variant as the A321ceo, where ceo stands for “Current Engine Option.”
Whereas Boeing typically only offers a single engine variant with each 737 variant, Airbus has opted for a flexible model in the A320 and derivatives. A321ceo operators could pick the CFM International CFM56-5B or the International Aero Engines (IAE) V2500 high bypass turbofans. With the A321neo, the choice evolved into the CFM International LEAP-1A and the Pratt & Whitney PW1100G-JM.
The first Airbus A321 was the A321-100. This model was the most similar to the A320 beside the fuselage stretch. Despite the considerable increase in weight, Airbus did not alter the fuel capacity.
As a result, the A321-100 had a shorter range than the original model. Lufthansa was the first client in 1994, but the shortcomings hampered aircraft sales. Airbus only delivered 90 A321-100, and later on, many owners converted theirs to A321-200 standard.
Airbus quickly realized the aircraft had more potential than the A321-100, and in 1997 the Airbus A321-200 flew its first commercial route with Monarch Airlines. The definitive model of the stretched Airbus increased the maximum takeoff weight to 205000 lbs and packed comprehensive modifications compared to the A321-100.
The A321-200 had the uprated IAE V2533-A5 or the CFM International CFM56-5B3 engines and provisions for up to two auxiliary fuel tanks in the rear fuselage. Airbus had to reinforce parts of the structure to cope better with the increased weight. Thanks to the range and passenger capability, Airbus could compete with both the 757 and long-range 737 models.
According to company data from September 2022, Airbus had sold a total of 1791 Airbus A321ceo.
In the 2010s, Airbus revolutionized the modern airline market with its A320neo family. Thanks to a new generation of engines introduced by CFM International and Pratt & Whitney, the European company improved the range and fuel consumption of the already successful A320. The first Airbus A320neo entered service in 2016, but the A321neo would have to wait another year to begin commercial flights. According to Airbus, the A321neo could fly 500 nautical miles further than the A321-200.
Airbus embarked on a quest to extract more range from the A321neo. The A321LR was the first result of this endeavor, with a maximum takeoff weight of 214000 lbs. Airbus used three auxiliary fuel tanks, and the A321LR can fly 100 nmi farther than the Boeing 757-200. The long-range Airbus entered service in 2018 with Arkia Israeli Airlines, but the quest did not end there.
In June 2022, the prototype of the Airbus A321XLR took off for the first time. The company lists a range of 4700 nautical miles and a maximum takeoff weight of 223000 lbs, making it the heaviest A321. The aircraft features a rear center tank in a permanent fitting instead of an auxiliary one.
The Airbus A321neo is an overwhelming commercial success. Data published by the company in September 2022 shows a staggering total of 4525 orders, including 836 deliveries. Although the airplane is relatively trouble-free, supply chain breakdowns forced Airbus to delay many A321neo orders in 2021.
The air cargo market spent years relying on aircraft decommissioned from airline duty, like specialized Boeing 727F and Airbus A300 variants. These aircraft are reliable workhorses, but they are not eternal. Problems like a dwindling supply of spare parts or increasingly tight engine regulations have gradually forced companies to seek replacements.
The first Airbus A321 proposal to enter the freight market was the A321P2F. This was part of a program by Airbus Freighter Conversion GmbH to repurpose older A320 and A321 aircraft. The Airbus A321P2F has no windows or passenger doors. The aircraft has a large cargo door behind the cockpit.
Due to the increasing demand for passenger aircraft, the first conversion only arrived in October 2020. Airbus outsourced the work to ST Engineering Aerospace.
A321ceo Engine Options: CFM56 or IAE V2500
The first A320 used a version of the CFM56, first employed on the KC-135 tankers of the American and French militaries. The company then began offering the IAE V2500 as an option. The original Airbus A321 series had two options from the start, the CFM56-5B and IAE V2530 series. There is no clear winner between the two engine options.
The CFM56 is the more popular option due to its commonality with other aircraft. The V2500 only equipped the MD-90 family for most of its career. Many pilots regard the CFM56 as having higher resistance to FOD damage, and the engine performs better in cruise settings. The A321 with the V2500 can run through the climb faster, however.
The starting time of the IAE V2500 is a common complaint by crews, taking up to 50 seconds for fuel pressure and RPM to stabilize on warm days. Pilots transitioning from CFM56 birds to the V2500 find the added wait frustrating.
The V2500 boasts higher idle thrust, leading inexperienced pilots to float more while flaring. At the same time, the V2500 reverse thrust is more powerful, making landings on short runways more comfortable.
The CFM56 burns through oil and fuel faster than the V2500, but it has historically boasted higher reliability rates. At the same time, scheduled maintenance on the V2500 series typically lasts less. The V2500 models fitted to the A320 suffered from serious reliability issues. These had been mostly solved by the time the A321 came about.
A321neo: CFM LEAP or Pratt & Whitney Geared Turbofan
Airbus continued offering two engine options in the A321neo and other aircraft from the A320neo family. CFM International offered the CFM LEAP-1A3X engines, whereas Pratt & Whitney delivered the PW113XG geared turbofan series. The competition for the A321neo is crucial to both engine manufacturers. The stretched Airbus has been outselling the A320neo in recent years.
Based on data compiled by Air Insight in 2020, the Pratt & Whitney Geared Turbofan outperforms the CFM LEAP in engine repairs per flight hour. This is the opposite of what happened in 2019, where teething issues cost GTF operators more. Fuel burn remains comparable between the engine options.
The early issues with the PW1130G series scared some operators into pursuing the CFM LEAP when placing orders for the A321neo. While these issues are in the past, it will take a couple of years for Pratt & Whitney to make up for the lost time.
Airbus A321 / Where to Find Replacement Parts
Between 1988 and 2022, Airbus delivered over 10000 units of the Airbus A320 family, including 2620 A321. All aircraft have high parts commonality and are widespread, so airlines and militaries operating the A321 have never had issues procuring replacement parts for their aircraft.
The ease of access for A321 parts is such that it influenced other designs. Brazilian aerospace giant Embraer picked the IAE V2500-A5 that powers the A321-200 for the KC-390 tactical airlift and tanker jet. The engineers at IAE redesigned the mounting pylon and accessory gearbox to make maintenance easier. As of 2022, Embraer had secured orders for 31 KC-390 with the V2500-E5 engine.
Airbus A321 / Common Problems
Compared to the Airbus A320, the A321 had a smooth introduction. The shorter predecessor had to weather through issues with engine options early on. The IAE V2500-A1 experienced compressor blade failures, but it never powered the A321 series due to the relatively poor thrust rating.
A similar situation happened when the A320neo family came about. The new Pratt & Whitney geared turbofan suffered from teething issues that plagued reliability and incurred high maintenance costs early on.
The first A321neo operators caught the tail end of that storm, but Pratt & Whitney solved the issue quickly. According to the company, in December 2020, the new Airbus family boasted dispatch rates of 99.98%.
Around 2019, news surfaced of excessive pitch response in specific conditions. The problem comes from the A321 sharing the flight control system code with the shorter A320 without fully accounting for the interactions between the longer fuselage, higher weight, and more powerful engines.
The issue is similar to those found by Boeing during the testing of the 737 MAX. The American company developed the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) to counteract this tendency. Still, issues in training and certification led to two 737 MAX fatal crashes and a long grounding for the entire fleet.
Airbus deployed a stacked solution to the problem. The company issued operational dispatch limitations in June 2019. They amended the manual to include additional loading instructions to keep the center of gravity from sitting too far aft.
The company worked with the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) to issue an airworthiness directive in the shape of a software update. The final fix passed extensive testing and certification process and reached operators in the second half of 2020.
One of the recurring issues with the A321 and other A320 family aircraft concerns the nosewheel. Airbus uses a design where the nose gear rotates 90 degrees before locking itself into place. The complicated mechanism has failed on at least seven occasions, though all aircraft successfully landed without victims.
The Airbus A321 was subject to Service Bulletin A320-28-1202 due to a rare but worrisome problem where fuel leaks went on undetected by the crew. This directive added a new function that detects abnormal drops in fuel levels automatically and alerts the pilots.
The Airbus A321 shares a type rating with other A320 family jets, but the sheer size of the aircraft can catch a new pilot unaware. The most common issue is tail strikes during landing. There are pitch limits pilots must respect when landing in manual mode. The jump between variants is drastic: the A319 has a pitch limit of 15.5 degrees with the main landing gear fully extended, compared to 11.2º in the A321.
Airbus recently altered the flight control laws of the A320 and A321 to prevent these scenarios. Once the spoilers are deployed, the flight control system limits the pitch attitude on the A321 to 7º if the pitch rate is below 3º/s or 4º if it is above it. The primary flight display now displays the pitch limit below 400 feet. Pilots hear an aural “PITCH, PITCH” warning if they exceed the limits for any reason.
Airbus A321 / Resale Value
Due to its size and good reliability, few Airbus A321 units stay in the market for too long. These aircraft also retain their value for considerably longer than some competitors. Italian company Avibroker lists four Airbus A321-200 units built in 2006 for $34 million.
The A321neo also performs well in the second-hand market, and delays have made used aircraft even more valuable. AirInsightGroup noted that the market value sits at $58 million in 2021, an increase on 2020 numbers.
Airbus A321 / Similar Aircraft
The Airbus A320 family came into the market to challenge the Boeing 737. The A321 escalated the competition to stretched 737 variants and the Boeing 757.
The Boeing 757 flies more passengers and enjoys a similar range, but its operational costs are higher than those of the A321. Pilots love flying the 757 due to the excess thrust. Airlines are less enthusiastic today, and the fuel consumption and maintenance costs eventually forced production to a premature end.
Production of the 757 ended in 2004, and plans to introduce a clean sheet replacement fell through as Boeing shifted efforts toward resolving the 737 MAX grounding crisis. The company considered introducing a new variant with more efficient engines to compete with the Airbus A321XLR, but this has not materialized.
The Boeing 737 is the lifelong nemesis of the Airbus A320 family, and the situation is no different with the A321. The first competing entry in this segment was the 737-900, a stretched version of the 737 that could seat up to 177 passengers. This aircraft came close but never quite matched the A321, with considerably shorter passenger capacity and only 2950 nautical miles of range.
The Boeing response arrived with the Boeing 737 MAX. Armed with the same CFM International LEAP-1B engines that power part of the A321neo fleet, the 737 MAX 9 seats from 193 to 220 passengers. The aircraft has a range of 3550 nautical miles. This is shorter than all A321neo variants but still perfectly adequate for most short and medium-haul routes.
The grounding of the Boeing 737 MAX fleet severely impacted the type’s ability to compete with the Airbus A321neo in the market. Despite this setback, the 737 MAX is slowly making up for the lost time.
Airbus A321 / FAQs
Question: Is the Airbus A321 a big plane?
Answer: The Airbus A321 is a large plane for its class. The jet is 146 ft long, making it the second longest narrowbody airliner behind the Boeing 757.
Question: How many Airbus A321 have crashed?
Answer: According to the Aviation Safety Database, there are nine A321 hull losses but only one fatal accident. This crash happened in Pakistan when an Airblue Airbus A321 flew into a mountain in bad weather. The other two incidents with loss of life were due to terrorist attacks, one in Egypt in 2015 with 224 fatalities and another in Somalia in 2016, which caused one death.
Question: What is the difference between the Airbus A320 and Airbus A321?
Answer: In simple terms, the Airbus A321 is a stretched version of the A320. The A321 carries more passengers and has a higher takeoff weight, which required Airbus to fit more powerful engines and make other adjustments to accommodate these changes.
Question: Does the Airbus A321 share the same type rating as other A320 family members?
Answer: Yes. As with the shorter versions of the A320, Airbus designed the A321 to have virtually identical cockpits and systems. This means that pilots certified to fly the A321 can also do so on the A318, A319, and A320 without additional training.
Question: Can the Airbus A321 fly transatlantic routes?
Answer: Yes, but with certain limitations. The A321 theoretically has enough range to fly between North America and Europe. It will struggle to do so with a full payload. On top of that, the seating arrangement and cabin amenities on the A321 are not made for long-haul flights, so the flight would not be comfortable.
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