Airbus A321XLR Makes First Flight In Hamburg

A321XLR Takeoff
Credit: Airbus SAS 2022 Jean-Vincent Reymondon

HAMBURG—Airbus embarked on the flight test program for the A321XLR, a project that is expected to last around one year and 1,000 flight hours, with the first flight of MSN 11000, the first flight test aircraft, on June 15.

The aircraft, powered by CFM International Leap 1A engines, took off from Airbus’ Hamburg-Finkenwerder airport at 11:04 a.m. local time for its first sortie, which it performed mainly over the North Sea northwest of Hamburg and Northern Germany. The aircraft was commanded by experimental test pilot Thierry Diez with experimental test pilot Gabriel Diaz de Villegas assisting as first officer. Also on board were lead flight-test engineers Philippe Pupin and Frank Hohmeister as well as flight-test engineer Mehdi Zeddoun. The aircraft landed after a 4 hr., 35 min. flight.

A total of four aircraft are involved in the campaign. Airbus has been using a standard A321neo, MSN 6839, for some early test flights over the past few months. In addition, three XLRs are going to participate in the program. MSN 11058 will be powered by Pratt & Whitney PW1100G-JM engines, but otherwise be identical to MSN 11,000 with the same heavy flight-test equipment installed in the cabin. MSN 11080, using CFM engines, will have a full passenger cabin installed and will be used mainly to demonstrate maturity in simulated airline missions on typical routes.

Both MSN 11058 and MSN 11080 are in advanced stages of assembly with landing gears and engines installed. The Pratt-powered aircraft is planned to make its first flight in the third quarter of 2022, according to Gary O’Donnell, head of the A321XLR program. 

The June 15 test flight was preceded by the handover to the flight test department on June 3, first engine runs three days later, engine high power and taxi tests on June 9 and high-speed rejected take-off testing on June 13.

The XLR is the long-range version of the A321neo. Airbus is targeting a range of 4,700 nm—around 700 nm more than that of the A321LR. According to the Aviation Week Network’s Fleet Discovery database, airlines have placed orders for just over 500 XLRs, demonstrating that Airbus is about to penetrate a new market segment opening long-haul routes for new generation narrowbodies. The concept itself is not new, as the Boeing 757 has been flying across the North Atlantic for decades, but Airbus claims the XLR can do the same or longer missions at much lower costs.

Compared to the LR version, Airbus has increased the maximum take-off weight (MTOW) on the XLR by four tons to 101 tons. Typical cabin layouts allow space for 180-220 passengers, but a high-density configuration could seat up to 240 seats.

Some changes to the aircraft were required to accommodate the higher weight, but Airbus also used the opportunity to introduce some other upgrades. “We need to simplify and standardize components,” O’Donnell says. One project was to introduce a simpler inboard flap compared to the standard A321neo that features the same slow and high-speed characteristics. The XLR also has a new landing gear manufactured by Safran as well as new wheels and tires. The landing gear features a single shock-absorber as opposed to two on the legacy aircraft. The fuselage has been strengthened in several places and Airbus has introduced an electrically controlled rudder (e-rudder) replacing the previous cable system.

The main component allowing Airbus to increase the range of the aircraft is the rear-center tank (RCT) holding a maximum of 19,200 liters (5,072 gal.) of fuel. The firmly installed component is also part of the aircraft’s structure and is currently subject to intense scrutiny by EASA. The European regulator is in the process of issuing a series of special conditions covering fuel vapors inside the tank, flammability, fire and crash protection.

Airbus has moved first delivery of the aircraft from late 2023 to early 2024, conceding that certification is taking longer than expected. “We have spent three years working with EASA [on the XLR] and will continue to do so until type certification,” O’Donnell says. “Some questions are open; some are already closed. It is the normal process.”

He indicated that Airbus has identified some solutions to address EASA concerns. “We have a lot of existing features available [from existing aircraft] and don’t look at anything new,” O’Donnell says. While Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury had indicated earlier that there could be a slight impact on range should more insulation or fuselage reinforcements need to be added to accommodate the regulator, O’Donnell tries to play down the problem. “We don’t see a huge issue in front of us,” O’Donnell says.

Airlines also have the option of putting an additional center tank (ACT) into the front cargo hold for extra range. According to O’Donnell, “up to 50% of customers” are choosing the option as they require it for some payload/range combinations on some routes. Four removable ACTs are a standard feature on the A321LR.

Jens Flottau

Based in Frankfurt, Germany, Jens is executive editor and leads Aviation Week Network’s global team of journalists covering commercial aviation.