June 13, 2022, © Leeham News: Airbus scheduled the first flight of its Xtra Long Range A321XLR Wednesday.
Some customers think certification of the airplane will be delayed up to a year as Europe’s EASA and the USA’s Federal Aviation Administration demand changes to the integrated aft fuel tank that gives the XLR an advertised range of 4,700nm.
That was the consensus of those I talked to who gathered last week at an industry event in Chicago. Airbus already said the XLR certification will be delayed by a few months as regulators review how the fuel tank is integrated into the airplane.
In the new regulatory environment brought about by the Boeing 737 MAX crisis, certification of the MAX 7, Max 10, and Boeing 777X already are delayed by increased scrutiny. Most expected the A321XLR would also be caught up in the new regulatory environment. Now, it is.
The issue is the safety of the new tankage, which replaces removable Auxiliary Center Fuel Tanks. Up to three are used in A321s, dating to the original design. These separate tanks add weight and take up room. When Airbus created the A321LR (for Long Range), taking the advertised range to 4,100nm, the added distance still wasn’t enough for reliable trans-Atlantic, non-stop service. Flights going westbound, into strong winter winds, sometimes had to stop for fuel or have payload restrictions. More range was needed.
So, Airbus came up with the integrated tank. One big tank replaces the three smaller tanks. It is lighter, there aren’t the structures that come with three tanks and advertised range was boosted to 4,700nm. Airbus sold more than 500 and the airplane is a true trans-Atlantic Boeing 757 replacement that the A321LR isn’t. Boeing’s response—the MAX 10—falls way short. It has an advertised range of only 3,300nm.
But the integrated tank poses problems the ACTs don’t. It goes right up to the inner surfaces of the fuselage and cabin floor. Regulators are concerned about structural integrity in a crash or belly landing. Fire resistant insulation is needed between the tank and the cabin floor.
Customer concerns about these issues first came to our attention more than a year ago, even as the MAX crisis wound down. A supplier also expressed concern about potential delays.
It’s perplexing how Airbus didn’t see these issues coming when designing the integrated tank. Maybe they’ll explain on Wednesday.
The US Air Line Pilots Assn. (ALPA) challenges the narrative that there is a pilot shortage, expressed by several US carriers who rely on regional airlines for much of its lift. ALPA claims it’s just a pay issue.
Bumping pay to a livable wage is certainly needed. But the federal requirement that FAA Part 121 requirements, which regulate regional airlines, mandate a minimum of 1,500 hours before being certified for the cockpit, also make it difficult to staff the airplanes.
American, Delta and United airlines have around 200 regional jets that are parked due to staffing shortages. Republic Airways holding, which contracts with the US majors to provide RJ service, wants to reduce the required hours from 1,500, something ALPA opposes.
This minimum was adopted after a fatal crash of a Colgan Airways Bombardier Q400. The investigation revealed that the pilots mishandled a stall on final. The co-pilot was young, had relatively few hours and was living on food stamps because the starting salary was so low. She had flown from Seattle to the East Coast on a red-eye and slept in operations because she couldn’t afford a hotel. Wages and minimum hours started coming up after this accident.
ALPA opposes lowering the minimum hours required on safety grounds. Republic wants to lower the requirement to 750 hours. Experience matters, but is 750 hours too low? I’m not qualified to answer this question.
But the pilot shortage is real. Mesa Airlines, another US regional, Republic and other carriers now have their own flight academies, one way to address the pilot shortage. One problem: these also offer a path to move up from regionals to major airlines, creating a constant need to new hires and churn at the regional level.
Major airlines are up-gauging airplanes. Many of the parked RJs are the 50-seat CRJ-200s and ERJ-145s, the 50-seat aircraft whose economics were challenging anyway, before the sharp rise in fuel costs this year.
Reduced frequency and dropping Essential Air Service cities are other responses. (EAS cities are those for which the federal government subsidizes air service, weighing the perceived needs against the economics of small markets.) Skywest Airlines, which serves several major carriers, proposed dropping EAS flights to 29 cities.
Up-gauging from 50-seat RJs to 70- or 90-seat aircraft and reducing frequency in markets that can’t sustain the larger airplanes is another option.
The pilot shortage is real. ALPA may be right that wages and benefits are important—few would probably argue with this. But the 1,500 hour requirement is undeniably an issue, too. Is reducing it to 750 hours the answer? Or 1,000 hours? I don’t have an answer.