Why the first Qantas A321XLR jets won’t have lie-flat business class

With its quiet, spacious cabins, modern interior and roomier overhead bins, the Airbus A321XLR will radically reshape the Qantas flying experience, on both domestic and international routes.

But it seems the advanced jet A321XLR jet won’t push that transformative envelope to include lie-flat beds in business class – at least not in the first jets due to arrive at the end of 2024.

The A321XLR is part of a three-pronged renewal of the Qantas fleet, alongside the nimble A220 and the ultra-long range Project Sunrise A350.

These three Airbus jets will shape the future of Qantas and reshape the passenger experience.

While Qantas is yet to reveal details of its A321XLR seating, the airline has confirmed the layout as

  • 20 business class seats
  • 180 economy seats

The airline also says there will be “no reduction in space between seats” compared to the Boeing 737, which the A321XLR will replace. (As a quick reference, that 737 pitch is 37” in business class and 30” in economy.)

“A step up in new product”

Qantas is planning a decidedly next-generation business class seat for the A321XLR, with CEO Alan Joyce previously telling Executive Traveller “it gives us the opportunity to have a step up in new product that you have never seen on narrow bodies in Australia before.”

There’s certainly been a broad expectation that the A321XLRs will sport cutting-edge business class seats that convert into lie-flat beds, given the extra-long range of these modern jets (that’s what the ‘XLR’ stands for, after all).

Airbus rates the A321XLR for 8,700km – almost 3,000km more than the Qantas Boeing 737and sufficient for non-stop flights to most of Southeast Asia.

This range – well beyond the scope of Qantas’ domestic network – is one reason the airline chose the highly flexible A321XLR.

Mapping out the range of the long-legged A321XLR – some of these flights will definitely call for beds in business class.

Mapping out the range of the long-legged A321XLR – some of these flights will definitely call for beds in business class.

The long-legged jet can also open up direct flights to and even between smaller cities which could not justify Qantas’ larger twin-aisle jets such as the Airbus A330 or Boeing 787 – potentially adding not only new overseas routes from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane but the likes of Adelaide, Perth and even Canberra.

“That changes the economics of lots of potential routes into Asia to make them not just physically possible but financially attractive,” Joyce remarked after inking the initial A321XLR order in 2019.

And the prospect of those eight-to-nine hour treks, especially with overnight legs, should make flatbeds in business class a must-have, not just for passenger comfort but the competitiveness of Qantas.

But those business class beds may have to wait until a second tranche of A321XLRs beyond the initial 20 on order (Qantas holds ‘purchase right’ options for as many as 94 aircraft and can switch up its orders by opting for variants such as the A321neo ” depending on our changing needs in the years ahead,” says Joyce, although some of those slots can also be assigned to the smaller A220).

Qantas says the A321XLR will put its current Boeing 737 business class in the shade.

Qantas says the A321XLR will put its current Boeing 737 business class in the shade.

So why do we feel the first red-tailed A321XLRs won’t have lie-flat business class seats?

Based on Qantas’ A321XLR configuration, there’s simply no way to fit 20 flatbed business class and 180 economy seats into an A321XLR while keeping the same legroom as on the Boeing 737.

Although Airbus won’t deliver the A321XLR to airlines until early 2024, the XLR is the same length as the base-model A321neo (and the long-range A321LR version).

This means that airlines already flying the A321neo and A321LR can be used as yardsticks, especially if their configuration mirrors the two-class layout followed by Qantas (some airlines complicate things with extended legroom ‘economy plus’ sections or using economy seats in a ‘Euro -business’ cabin).

The closest direct equivalent is Cathay Pacific, which began flying the A321neo in mid-2021.

Cathay Pacific's Airbus A321neo 'regional business class'.

Cathay Pacific’s Airbus A321neo ‘regional business class’.

Cathay’s A321neo is configured for a total of 202 seats – two more than Qantas’ count of 200 – with

  • 12 recliners in business class, split over three rows of a 2-2 layout
  • 190 seats in economy, ranked in the familiar 3-3 layout
Cathay Pacific's Airbus A321neo 'regional business class'.

Cathay Pacific’s Airbus A321neo ‘regional business class’.

It’s a fair call for Qantas to tilt that mix to 20 business class and 180 economy class, but the metrics of that work only if business class retains that five rows of a two-across layout, which almost certainly rules out business class beds.

The airline could opt for something like Thompson’s Vantage seat, as recently seen on Singapore Airlines’ Boeing 737 MAXwhich achieves lie-flat beds by alternating the cabin between pairs of seats and single ‘throne’ seats.

Singapore Airlines' impressive Boeing 737 MAX business class.

Singapore Airlines’ impressive Boeing 737 MAX business class.

Even so, this layout would require seven rows in business class, which is still quite the ask in the XLR’s limited footprint – simply put, seats that become beds demand a significant amount of real estate.

Singapore Airlines' Boeing 737 MAX lie-flat business class alternates paired seats with solo 'thrones'.

Singapore Airlines’ Boeing 737 MAX lie-flat business class alternates paired seats with solo ‘thrones’.

It’s far more likely we’ll see the first batch of Qantas A321XLRs with paired recliners, although it allows scope for a seat that’s leagues ahead of Qantas’ Boeing 737 business class.

A good example of this is Thompson’s Vantage Duowhich aims for the ‘sweet spot’ between a standard recliner and a lie-flat bed.

The new Vantage Duo business class, from Thompson Aero Seating.

The new Vantage Duo business class, from Thompson Aero Seating.

This includes a recline of up to 130 degrees, compared to a typical maximum of 110 degrees for your average business class seat.

The paired seats are also offset from each other, giving each passenger more privacy and a greater sense of personal space.

Thompson Aero Seating's Vantage Duo stagger its seats for greater privacy.

Thompson Aero Seating’s Vantage Duo stagger its seats for greater privacy.

Having sampled the Vantage Duo at Hamburg’s Aircraft Interiors Expo in mid-June, the author can attest to their appeal – although the Vantage Duo demands a seat pitch of 41”, which is quite a bump from the 37” of the Qantas Boeing 737.

Another ‘sweet spot’ concept is Factorydesign’s unique Access business class conceptwhich introduces a unique ‘fan’ layout for two-abreast seating to provide direct aisle access for every passenger.

Factorydesign's Access business class concept: the best of both worlds?

Factorydesign’s Access business class concept: the best of both worlds?

In an Access business class cabin, the seats on either side of the center aisle take on something of a wedge shape, and are not only staggered but physically separated so that passengers in the window seat can sit into the space between the paired seats and then step straight into the aisle.

Walk this way: Factorydesign's Access business class concept.

Walk this way: Factorydesign’s Access business class concept.

Factorydesign says its work on Access was “prompted by the potential commercial benefits of long-range narrow-body aircraft” – however, the necessary 47” pitch could also be a challenge for Qantas in achieving a cabin of 20 seats.

For his part, Joyce says only that Qantas has “some exciting plans for the next-generation cabins we’ll put on these aircraft, which will offer improvements for passengers that we’ll share in the coming months.”

Executive Traveller expects Qantas will end up with two versions of the A321XLR: one with business class recliners for domestic routes and short-range overseas routes such as New Zealand, and another with fully flat beds in business class to take on international routes to Asia.

When approached by Executive TravellerQantas declined to comment on the A321XLR’s seating or cabin configuration.

ET readers: what are your expectations for Qantas’ A321XLR business class?

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