Airbus is confident that performance upgrades in the pipeline for its single-aisle family will give its largest model, the A321, a sufficient range boost for a genuine shot at the huge Boeing 757-200 replacement market.
The airframer's chief operating officer for customers, John Leahy, believes that the new 'sharklet' winglets, which will provide a 3.7% reduction in fuel burn and around 220km (120nm) more range on the A321 from 2012, means there are "great opportunities to replace the 757-200".
According to Airbus there are 689 passenger 757-200s in service, with several large fleets operating with US carriers including American Airlines, Continental Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines. The latter is in the early stages of a fleet renewal evaluation for its 96 aircraft, although this may be affected by its proposed merger with Continental Airlines.
The 757, which is slightly larger that the A321, has always had superior payload-range, but the sharklet upgrade gives the Airbus single-aisle "true US transcontinental range capability", says Leahy.
He adds that the sharklet-outfitted A321 will be able to operate between Boston and San Francisco or San Francisco and Maui, Hawaii, with maximum passengers - similar to routes flown by the US 757 operators - but with a 17% per seat fuel burn advantage, based on a 185-seat A321 and 192-seat 757-200.
Equipped with Aviation Partners Boeing winglets, the 757 has a range of 8,300km, which is around 2,600km more than the A321, giving it transatlantic range.
Airbus vice-president for customer affairs Andy Shankland concedes that the transatlantic routes flown by some US 757 operators are beyond the capability of the A321, and says that the primary focus centres on US transcontinental routes.
Qatar Airways chief executive Akbar Al Baker, whose airline is a major A320-family operator, said recently that Airbus' proposed 'new engine option' re-engining with advanced turbofans would provide an even more significant boost in performance for the A321.
Boeing is not being idle on its current narrowbody family, and will decide this year on re-engining for the 737 to give a potential fuel burn improvement of 10-15%.
Airbus claims that the A321 with sharklets has an 8% fuel-burn advantage over the current version of the largest 737, the 173-seat -900ER. However Boeing plans to deliver a 2% improvement in fuel burn for the 737 next year through the new CFM56-7BE engine and an aerodynamic clean-up.