A new generation of single-aisle aircraft is set to serve long-haul routes. How will this affect passengers, asks Alex McWhirter.

Some 35 years ago, wide-body jets were ushering in a new era of comfortable long-haul flying. The Boeing 747, McDonnell Douglas DC-10 and Lockheed Tri-star provided flyers with space and comfort beyond their wildest dreams. Never again, it was thought, would passengers be condemned to sit in a narrow, claustrophobic tube for hours on end.

However, recent developments threaten to turn back the clock. Narrow-body aircraft such as the B737 MAX and A321LR are shaking off their short-haul origins and are poised to make a comeback on longer flights. Initially, they will operate between Europe and the US East Coast but eventually they could ply other lengthy routes, too.

While it is true that a number of narrow-body aircraft are already in service across the Atlantic (see page 28), these updated variants are more advanced. They are capable of flying with a full load of 180 or 200 passengers nonstop between cities in Europe and airports on the US eastern seaboard. So the economy class passenger located in those roomy B747 seats, configured nine-across with two aisles in the 1970s, will, in 2017, end up in a tighter, six-across, single-aisle charter configuration.

Why are airlines downgrading their product? It’s simply a question of driving down the ticket price. Forget the comfort and service – these aircraft will mainly be operated by low-cost carriers (LCCs). Narrow-bodied jets such as the B737 MAX and A321LR are cheaper to buy and operate compared with today’s sophisticated wide-bodies like the B787 Dreamliner or Airbus’s new A350 (which would normally find favour with LCCs). They may possibly be more reliable, too, considering the many problems that Norwegian experienced in the early days of B787 service.

Their flying range varies between just over 3,000 nautical miles in the case of the B737 MAX, to 4,000 nautical miles for the A321LR. Their smaller size and passenger capacity also provides the operator with flexibility, enabling them to be rostered between secondary airports.

It means the LCCs face less risk in finding enough passengers to fill their flights. By operating between smaller airports, they pay lower fees and know that the big boys, with their 400- or 500-seat A380s and B777-300ERs, cannot challenge them directly.

Norwegian has ordered dozens of B737 MAX and A321LR aircraft. It intends to operate the former on a new route between Edinburgh and New York. The launch date is expected late this spring or early summer, with the carrier’s B737s due to fly from Newburgh – a 60-mile drive from Manhattan – and Providence, Rhode Island, which is about the same distance from Boston. Norwegian also plans to operate these B737s out of Cork, and there will be many points elsewhere in both Europe and Scandinavia. When it takes delivery of 30 A321LRs in a couple of years’ time, there will be further developments.

Aer Lingus is expected to launch a low-cost subsidiary in the coming years. The IAG carrier is likely to finalise a deal with Airbus to lease a number of A321LR NEO (new engine option) aircraft. In an interview given by IAG boss Willie Walsh to the Irish Independent, he explained that the A321LR could be used both to expand frequency out of Dublin on busy routes such as New York, as well as operating to other US points. IAG could also use the A321LR out of regional Irish airports such as Cork or Shannon.

These smaller aircraft will allow niche carriers to enter the transatlantic market. Azores Airlines is a good example of this. Part of Portugal’s SATA Group, it has an advantageous base between Southern Europe and North America. In 2019 it will modernise its transatlantic fleet when it will lease four A321LRs.

The Azores are located 900 nautical miles west of Portugal, so the A321LR is ideally suited to the carrier’s transatlantic ambitions. Paulo Menezes, chief executive of SATA Group, says: “Our mission is to bring the Azores to the world and the world to the Azores, and we are happy to be investing in the A321LR to achieve this.”

Will we see these narrow-bodied jets flying between the Gulf and Europe? Existing B737s and A320s already operate some services to the Balkans and Central Europe but because of range limitations are not typically seen going into Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Paris or London.

Still, it can only be a matter of time before they arrive in Northern Europe. One issue delaying their arrival here is the fact that Europe to the Gulf is not yet a major point-to-point market like North America. Most passengers are travelling beyond, rather than to or from, the Gulf.

Anyone travelling for business would be wise to opt for premium or the most spacious seating provided, assuming, of course, that a superior product is offered on board (that was unclear for these new aircraft at the time of writing).


A number of narrow-bodied aircraft already ply the Atlantic. American Airlines and United, for example, operate a number of B757 services from regional points to the US East Coast, while Icelandair and Wow Air operate various narrow-bodies between Europe and the East Coast but with a plane change in Reykjavik.

The difference is that these are older variants that, in the case of the B757s – a short-distance aircraft specifically adapted for transatlantic service – are somewhat long in the tooth. Range can be an issue. United’s B757s, when faced with strong headwinds flying west, have been known to divert to Gander in Canada for refuelling. Canada’s Westjet operates B737 services between Halifax in Nova Scotia and Glasgow, but it’s a shorter distance.