Airbus believes the Airbus A321neo will reach a fuel burn improvement in excess of 20% per seat as the manufacturer combines efficiencies gained from the new engine with cabin configuration changes.

Airbus will offer the aircraft with a maximum capacity configuration of 240 seats compared to the current limit of 221 for the A321ceo.

The move up to the new maximum is made possible mainly by changes to the door arrangements. Door 2 in front of the wing will disappear. Instead airlines will have the option to activate a second overwing exit. Door 3 is moved back by four frames and can be deactivated if an airline choses to fly a less dense layout. New slim-backrest seats will allow airlines to go to a pitch of 28 inches. “But the comfort experience will be well in the range of 30 inches,” Senior Vice President A320-family Klaus Roewe said at the Airbus Innovation Days in Toulouse, France. Airbus is also offering a new galley and lavatory layout that will free up space for more seats. Movable overhead bins are currently studied to increase storage space for carry-on luggage.

The efficiency gain can be split up between “at least 15%” of fuel burn reduction available because of the new engines and another 6% because of the more efficient cabin layout.

The A321 is moving nearer the A320 as the most popular version of the A320 family, with 45% of the current firm order backlog now for the A321. But Roewe hinted that many customers have flexibility to change versions for their options so that the A321’s share could actually rise further. Conversely, demand for the A319 and the A319neo is significantly reduced. The A318 is no longer on offer as a neo.

But not only is the A321 becoming more popular, airlines are also already starting to fit in more seats. “Today less than 5% of the A321s are at 220 seats,” Roewe said. “But we are seeing a paradigm shift.”

Roewe pointed out that the new exit configuration allows airlines to be very flexible. For long haul services in a more spacious layout typical for domestic transcontinental flights in the U.S. airlines could opt to deactivate one of the overwing exits per side and still be allowed to fly a maximum of 165 passengers.

The new maximum passenger capacity on the A320 is to be raised from 180 to 189 seats. Approval of the new limit has been based on the fact that the doors are much larger than type C specifications would require. Airbus is also equipping them with much wider escape slides that should enable passengers to get off the aircraft more quickly in case of an emergency.

Improved take-off and landing performance will also allow airlines to fly into short or high altitude runways with higher passenger loads, Roewe said. According to Airbus calculations, an A320neo can take 35 more passengers on a 500 nm mission from Santos Dumont airport in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. An A321neo could accommodate 25 more passengers on flights from Phoenix or Las Vegas based on 2,500 nm missions.

Flight testing of the first A320neo is expected to start soon. “We are ready to fly the A320neo in September,” said Sandra Bour-Schaeffer, neo project flight test engineer. The test campaign is going to involve eight aircraft for six different versions -– A319neo, A320neo and A321neo with the two different engine types. The first Pratt & Whitney PW1100G-JM engines will be fitted to the wing of the first A320neo within the next four weeks. “We are very satisfied with the current aircraft definition and we are extremely good in terms of schedule,” Roewe said. “Production ramp-up will be the next challenge.”