How to replace the Boeing 757 has been one of the last open portfolio questions for civil aircraft manufacturers. Airbus’s A321LR has one answer. Boeing may have a second. But if its model is launched, it will be a longer-term step.

Airbus formally launched a long-range version of the A321 with a 97-ton maximum takeoff weight (MTOW). Air Lease Corp. (ALC) is the first customer for this type, with a memorandum of understanding for 30. “[ALC Chairman/CEO] Steve Udvar-Hazy said to us that we could make this a 757 replacement, so we have to thank him for the idea,” say John Leahy, Airbus chief operating officer-customers.

Leahy anticipates a market of around 1,000 aircraft for the A321LR as replacements for the 469 Boeing aircraft still flying plus another 500 more. “We are burning up to 30% less fuel than the 757,” he says.

First deliveries of the new A321neo version are planned for 2019. The aircraft will be equipped with a third auxiliary center fuel tank and could fly approximately 500 nm farther than the A321ceo with a regular 93.5-ton MTOW (and only two additional fuel tanks). For the new aircraft, Airbus now assumes a standard cabin layout for 206 passengers. The European manufacturer claims the calculated 4,000-nm range even exceeds the 3,850 nm of the Boeing 757-200W (winglet-equipped). The longest current 757 route is United Airlines’ New York-Berlin service, which is slightly more than 4,000 nm and therefore can only be flown with less than maximum payload. United has 169 seats on its transatlantic 757s.

Airbus initially pitched the aircraft to airlines in a premium 164-seat lay-out with 20 seats in business class, 30 in premium economy and 114 in economy. But discussions with potential customers showed that higher seat counts are prized by many airlines. In the premium configuration, the A321LR range decreases slightly to 3,904 nm because of the extreme assumptions in terms of weight per passenger.

The 206-seat configuration includes 16 seats in business class at a 36-in. pitch and 190 in economy at 30 in. “The interest has gone beyond what we initially thought,” Arnaud Demeusois, A320 family product marketing director, says. In theory, Airbus could offer the aircraft with up to 240 seats (its certified maximum); however, that configuration is mainly geared toward short-haul, low-cost carriers and would likely offer less range.

Airbus is targeting airlines that are currently flying the 757 on long-range missions and those that would fly such routes but cannot, for lack of a suitable aircraft. Key routes defining the aircraft’s needed capabilities are U.S. East Coast to Central Europe; Europe to the Middle East; North to South America; Europe to West Africa; and Australia to South Asia.

The Airbus Cabin Flex concept will form the basis for the aircraft’s newest version. Airbus is offering a new optional exit door configuration in which door 2 is removed and replaced by a double overwing exit. Door 3 is moved aft. Some minor changes to the wing are also planned, which will lead to a weight increase of less than 100 kg (220 lb.). The standard-range variant and the 97-ton MTOW version would share the same build standard, thus shorter-haul operators will suffer a small weight penalty. Customers who have opted for the legacy door positioning are not affected.

Boeing is signaling it will not compete directly with the newly launched longer-range version of the A321neo, leaving Airbus with the only offering in the sector while the U.S. manufacturer focuses on a longer-term, all-new middle-of-the-market (MOM) aircraft to fill the gap between the 737 MAX and 787.

Although the move effectively sacrifices the near- to mid-term 757 replacement market to Airbus, Boeing believes the size of the sector will not be as large as its competitor forecasts. Boeing Commercial Airplanes Marketing Vice President Randy Tinseth says: “The thought of a 1,000-aircraft-size market is frankly a little bit laughable.”

Although Boeing delivered more than 1,000 757-200s and -300s, the company says of the surviving fleet that only “50 to 60” are currently flying the sort of long-range sectors the A321LR is targeting. However, despite Boeing’s deep reservations about the market size for a straight replacement of the 757, the company is more optimistic about the prospects for a clean sheet MOM concept. Boeing believes there could be a larger potential market for a more capable new aircraft that straddles the 737 and 787 capacity gap, but with better operating economics and greater range than the 757.

“Over the last year, we have visited 30 customers around the world to address the requirement for an airplane larger than the 737 MAX 9 that can fly a bit farther,” says Boeing Global Sales and Marketing Senior Vice President John Wojick. “We are trying to understand how large that marketplace is and whether an investment in that market space can be justified.”

Boeing’s comments came during a briefing to mark the record-breaking 1,432 net orders taken during 2014. The tally, valued at $232.7 billion in list prices, exceeds the 1,355 orders taken in 2013 and broke the previous all-time high set in 2007. The company delivered 723 aircraft last year, a significant increase compared with the 648 built in 2013.

Airbus delivered 629 aircraft in 2014, three more than a year earlier. It posted 1,456 net orders, compared with 1,503 in 2013. 

A version of this article appears in the January 15-February 1, 2015 issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology.