Built to give Airbus an edge in terms of medium-range and capacity, the A321 gave the formidable A320 the stretched fuselage it deserved, making this aircraft something that would decimate large swathes of the competition.
The A321 was the first derivative version of the A320, being originally designated the A320-500 and the A325. The concept was partially spawned by the original Airbus A320 variants which were considered back when the aircraft was in the concept stage. Initially, three design variants were drawn up under the designation SA (Single-Aisle), these being SA1, SA2 and SA3; SA1 (130 to 140 seats), SA2 (140 – 150 seats) and SA3 (170 –
180 seats). The original A320 was based on the dimensions of SA2, while the upcoming A320-500 project would follow principles similar to that of SA3, stretching the fuselage of the aircraft by 22ft 9 inches so as to carry an overall capacity of up to 236 passengers if pushed.
Intentions from the very start were to modify the internal workings of the aircraft as little as possible so as to allow for commonality between the A320 and A321. As such, aside from the obvious lengthening of the aircraft’s fuselage, the A321 has only undergone minor alterations to help compensate for the higher weight and longer body. The most notable addition to the A321 are an extra set of four cabin doors; two ahead of the wing and two aft. Minor alterations included double-slotted flaps and modifications to the trailing edge, thereby increasing the overall wing area. The double-slotted flaps were added to maintain performance that was comparable to that of the A320, thereby removing the need for airline pilots to have to retake their Type Rating Certificate for the new aircraft. Otherwise, the A321, from a design standpoint, is identical to the A320, sporting the same cockpit design, engines and other design configurations.
The project was launched on November 24th, 1988, 7 months after Air France received its first Airbus A320. The primary intentions of the A321 were to make Airbus competitive against Boeing in the short-to-medium haul market, on which Boeing had something of a monopoly. At the time, Boeing sported the Boeing 757, a narrow-body jet airliner which could fill the role of either high capacity short-haul runs or lower-capacity medium-haul runs perfectly. Airbus on the other hand had only the Airbus A300 and A310 widebodies, which were too large for this purpose and would have been run at a loss, while the new A320 was too small to compete in this capacity.
Regardless, the acclaim to which the A320 had been met by crews and airlines alike meant that hopes were high for the A321 project, which began its development with 183 aircraft being ordered by 10 airlines. 5 years later on March 11th, 1993, the A321 prototype made its first flight from the Toulouse factory. The A321 prototypes were tested with multiple powerplants, the first prototype being fitted with IAE V2500 engines, while the second was fitted with CFM56-5B turbofans, the same type fitted to the earlier A320. The A321 was launched with the option for both engines, the first time one of their products was made immediately available with multiple powerplant options.
Airworthiness certification came in late 1993, with deliveries being made to launch customer, Lufthansa, in January 1994. This was followed by Alitalia in March the same year, with Lufthansa’s models being fitted with V2500-A5’s, while Alitalia took on CFM56-5B’s.
However, the biggest issue raised with regard to the Airbus A321 was where to build
them. The original Airbus A320 was built at Toulouse was not large enough to accommodate the construction of both A320’s and A321’s simultaneously, and thus it was considered that this plant should be expanded. However, it was eventually decided that the A321 would instead by built at Hamburg Finkenwerder airport in West Germany, a decision which the French division of Airbus did not take with much enthusiasm. The French division argued that the move of Airbus A320 production to this plant would be unnecessarily expensive, with a projected development cost of €135 million, while the German division took a more pragmatic view and considered it appropriate for there to be a second assembly plant based solely around the construction of A320 derivatives.
The dispute was settled when Airbus entered the bond market, through which it raised €475 million to finance the new plant. This was supplemented by a €175 million loan from the European Investment Bank and various private investors. The plant eventually opened in time for the construction of the first A321 production units, and since then the factory has been churning out A321’s together with later A319’s and A318’s ever since.
The investments made into the A321 project were well founded, as the aircraft became
an immediate success, trouncing the Boeing competition for years to come. By 2000, 172 units had been constructed and delivered to airlines all across the world, including Lufthansa, China Southern, China Eastern, JetBlue, Aeroflot, British Airways, Spirit Airlines, US Airways (later American Airlines) and many more. In the US, the A321 caught Boeing napping, with their market in medium range jets now being infringed on by their European rival. The Boeing 757, while still selling well, now had some real competition, not helped by the aircraft’s 13 year old design. While Boeing had been considering modified variants of the then only available 757-200, the rise of the A321 forced their hand, and in 1996 they launched the 757-300, which made its debut in 1999.
However, the 757-300, which holds the record for the longest fuselage ever on a twin-jet aircraft, only ever sold 55 units before 757 production was ceased in 2004. While the 757-300 was an endearing aircraft, it was deemed too large to fit the role for which it was meant to compete, coupled with a general loss of enthusiasm in the 757 design, due largely to the inefficient and somewhat dated technology behind the 757-200. The A321 therefore was the death knell which saw an end to the Boeing 757. Boeing attempted to respond in 2001 with the launch of the 737-900, a stretched variant of the Next
Generation 737 Series which could carry a comparable number of passengers to that of the A321. However, the fatal flaw of the original 737-900 was its lack of range, which couldn’t compete with its Airbus rival. As such, the -900’s launch and early production life was very lukewarm, with only 52 units sold before the conventional -900 was replaced in 2006 by the 737-900ER (Extended Range), a truly superior machine which, for the first time, gave the A321 a run for its money in the medium-range aircraft market.
Today, the A321 is in operation with 108 carriers and 1,551 of them have been pressed into service as of 2017. Such is the enthusiasm of the A321 that, by the end of 2017, 231 of the original A321’s and 1,470 of the brand new A321neo (new engine option) variants were on order. The largest operators of the A321 are American Airlines (which inherited the aircraft owned by US Airways upon its merger in 2015, as well as honouring their outstanding orders) and China Southern Airlines, which operate 217 and 96 aircraft, respectively.
The A321, however, has sadly not been immune to accidents and incidents. As of 2017, the aircraft has been involved in 31 incidents resulting in the deaths of 377 people.
The first accident involving an A321 was on March 21st, 2003, when TransAsia Airways Flight 543 crashed into a truck on the runway while landing at Taipei Songshan Airport in Taiwan. The crash thankfully didn’t result in any deaths, but the aircraft was written off.
The first fatal crash of the A321 took place on July 28th, 2010, when Airblue Flight 202 flying from Karachi to Islamabad crashed into the Margalla Hills while on descent with no survivors among the 146 passengers and 6 crew. The cause was determined to be due to inclement weather and a failure for the pilots to act in a professional manner in the cockpit with regard to the weather conditions.
The second fatal crash of the type took place on October 31st, 2015, when Metrojet Flight 9268 fell from the sky over the Sinai, Egpyt, while en route from Sharm el-Sheikh to St. Petersburg in Russia. The crash resulted in the deaths of all 224 aboard. The cause of the accident remains undetermined, though most sources point to a terrorist bomb being placed aboard by members of the Islamic State in retaliation for Russia’s involvement in the Syrian Civil War. The rumours of the crash being the result of a terrorist bomb led to a slump in tourism in the resort towns of the Red Sea and North Africa, severely affecting the economies of these areas.
The latest incident involving the A321 was on December 8th, 2017, when a Qatar Airways unit was written off after a fire while on the ground at Hamad International Airport in Doha.
On the stage of modern aviation, the A321 has truly cemented itself as one of the greats, a reliable and highly advanced design which took very little work to accomplish thanks to a predetermined commonality among Airbus’ product range. The A321 forms the mainstay of many airlines across the globe and has wormed its way into all manner of roles originally considered only suitable for wide-body jets, including transcontinental flights across the mainland USA, holiday flights from Europe to the Canary Islands, as well as busy rush hour flights between the capitals of Continental Europe, Southeast Asia and North America. One cannot deny the flexibility of these fantastic aircraft; safe, reliable, efficient and based of a winning design that has stood the test of time.