The future of the long-haul narrowbody market is now slightly clearer. Airbus has officially launched a 4,000nm (7,400km)-range version of the A321neo that can match or exceed the Boeing 757-200, including the niche role of flying from the US East Coast to secondary cities in western Europe.

At the moment Boeing prefers to laugh at the Airbus forecast of up to 1,000 aircraft orders in this segment, but its rivals in Toulouse may enjoy the last guffaw. Airbus’s numbers were hardly plucked out of thin air: Boeing sold more than 1,000 757s with essentially the same seat count and range as the newly launched ­long-range A321neo.

Of course, the 757 entered service 12 years ahead of the current version of the A321, and 19 years before the first 737-900. The cross-country routes once dominated by 757s are routinely flown by the latest versions of 737 and A321 derivatives today.

The long-range A321neo will seek to assume the 757’s niche role on transatlantic routes. There are about 50 757s currently flying such services – a fraction of the 500-aircraft replacement market suggested by Airbus chief salesman John Leahy. This also offers little precedent for Leahy’s prediction of a further market for another 500 orders for growth. Is it any wonder Boeing vice-president for marketing Randy Tinseth writes off Leahy’s forecast as “laughable”?

But Airbus may be on to something. Only two decades ago it was common to see widebodies flying most coast-to-coast routes in the USA, but those roles have since dwindled to a few highly specialised routes. The North Atlantic crossing may go the same way over the next 10 years, with the 767 and A330 ceding more territory to their narrowbody sisters.

If Boeing seems dismissive of the long-range ­A321neo today, it is only because analysts in Seattle have likely decided how they will beat it. Boeing is considering launching a new clean-sheet aircraft that will be larger – and, dare we suggest, a twin-aisle? – with longer-range than an A321neo can possibly offer. It would not only be feasible to connect the US northeast to the westward fringe of Europe, but open routes deep into the interior of both markets.

On the chess board of air transport product strategy, it is too early to know which side is approaching check or checkmate. By moving first, however, Airbus earns the chance to collect hundreds of orders, while leaving its options open to counter Boeing’s response a decade later.

Source: Flight International