In a week Jetstar outlined the cabin configuration and delivery details of its soon-to-arrive next-generation Airbus A321LRs, this story from the Australian Aviation archives is from November 2009, when Ellis Taylor wrote about entry into service of the A321 into the low-cost carrier’s operations.
While it has presented some challenges to its operating model, the growing fleet of Jetstar Airbus A321s is carving out a valuable niche in Qantas subsidiary’s expanding network, particularly on longer routes.
At 213 seats in Jetstar’s all-economy configuration, the A321s offer 36 more seats than the A320, while the similarities in cockpit systems, engineering supplies and spares have significantly cut down the time and cost of introducing a new type into the fleet.
The extra capacity also has cost advantages, with per-seat costs on the A321 understood to be approximately five per cent lower than on the A320. Nevertheless, few low cost airlines around the world have operated the A321 despite a number operating other A320 Family aircraft. Most recently, easyJet has decided to sell its fleet of A321s which were inherited from its takeover of GB Airways.
As such, Jetstar is the only low cost carrier of note which has been able to operate the A321 alongside its A320s since receiving its first two aircraft (of 17) in April 2008.
Those aircraft came from the US where they were previously operated by Spirit Airlines in a two-class configuration. A third ex-Spirit A321 was meant to join the fleet, but the lease on that aircraft was cancelled in May 2008 as the Qantas Group cut its capacity due to high fuel prices at the time, although sources indicate that this may have had more to do with the condition of the particular aircraft.
While there are more similarities than differences between the A320 and A321, initially operating a fleet of only two of the larger narrowbody has not been ideal for the carrier. Early on, Jetstar’s management was concerned about service recovery if a full A321 flight had to be cancelled due to a technical issue. Consequently, the airline decided to play it safe and initially deployed them on high-frequency routes where passengers could easily be rebooked on other services.
Nevertheless the fleet of A321s continues to grow, with three new factory direct leased aircraft joining the fleet this year. Even more significantly, in late September Jetstar took delivery of its first owned A321 in Hamburg, with the aircraft set to enter service from October 25.
Given the A320 and A321 share identical cockpits and systems, the initial introduction of the A321 posed few problems as Jetstar’s head of operations delivery Chris Davies explains.
“For us, the flight ops side was relatively straightforward. There’s not a huge amount that’s different between the 321 and the 320. Tech crew need to do a couple of sectors of line training to focus on differences in handling and weight and balance,” Davies said.
“From an operational perspective, the ability to have tech crew cross-trained makes it a good option for us to deploy it easily and flexibly.”
Similarly, from an engineering perspective, the introduction of the A321 has not been too difficult thanks to the large amount of common parts.
“We had to do some differences training which we conducted in house for our certifying engineers,” said Chris Snook, Jetstar’s chief engineer.
“It’s all common, so from our point of view, other than the training and a slight increase in provisioning it really carries across well.”
Snook added that the only major changes between the two aircraft are to parts such as the landing gear, which on the A321 is strengthened to carry the additional weight.
As with the A320s, the A321s are powered by IAE V2500 engines. Snook says that this allows it to use the spare engines across both fleets with minimal changes required.
“Although the thrust rating of the engine is different, we can up-thrust or down-thrust our spare engines,” he said.
Still, some of the initial challenges of having a newer aircraft in the fleet continue to be ironed out.
“We’re somewhat restricted in where we can deploy this. You have to get certification for where you can operate the aircraft to, and so we’re doing that bit by bit, growing where we can deploy the A321,” said Davies.
“You obviously have to have ground staff and equipment at the ports which are able to handle the aircraft.”
There are some challenges in scheduling where the aircraft goes, according to executive manager of network and strategy Vincent Hodder.
“We really like the aircraft, and from an operating cost per seat perspective, it’s a very effective vehicle on certain rotations,” Hodder said.
“But as a low cost carrier there are a few things that are really important to us in terms of the simple nature of our operation that the A321 doesn’t necessarily help us with.”
Like the A320s, the A321s feature containerised baggage and freight to help speed up the turnaround times. However, with the greater number of passengers, the A321s take 40 minutes to turn instead of the 30 minutes taken to turn an A320. Further, at some ports the A321 cannot use the rear door for boarding.
“Without rear door boarding you really struggle to board passengers,” noted Davies.
As a result, the productivity of the A321 fleet in terms of sectors per day is slightly lower than the A320.
Hodder explains that this presents a challenge should one of the A321s be substituted for an A320.
“In terms of switching backwards and forwards, if we operate those routes some days with a A320, it means that inefficiency hits the A320 fleet as well,” Hodder said.
The higher capacity also means that an additional cabin crew member has to be carried.
“We get excellent efficiency on a per cabin crew basis operating four cabin crew on the A320. When you go to five on an A321, it’s a minor difference but the number of passengers to cabin crew is slightly less,” said Hodder.
Davies notes that cabin crew also have to undergo some differences training before deploying on an A321 service.
“It’s primarily about emergency procedures because it’s got a different seat map and door,” Davies said.
Nevertheless, the aircraft has been able to find a valuable niche, particularly on some of the longer domestic routes in the network where frequencies are fewer.
It has also proven useful on some shorter routes including Melbourne-Gold Coast where the additional capacity has allowed Jetstar to add incremental capacity without adding frequencies.
However, there are some routes on which the aircraft are unlikely to ever feature, despite the appeal of the additional capacity.
“For a low cost carrier it’s suited to longer routes with a small number of turns,” said Hodder.
“It would be a fantastic aircraft to operate on a Melbourne-Sydney because you can load it up at peak times. The real issues with it are the passengers, particularly getting them on and off in the right timeframe.”
From October 25, the A321 fleet is now primarily operating on longer, low-rotation domestic routes such as Melbourne-Cairns and Melbourne-Perth, although it has been retained on some services to the Gold Coast from Melbourne and Sydney.
The aircraft is also set to roll out on the airline’s growing international network, including on its Cairns-Darwin-Singapore and Melbourne-Darwin-Singapore services where the additional capacity and range hold great promise.
The A321s have also been identified as the aircraft to operate Jetstar’s proposed Sydney-Nadi services, which pending government approval, could start in April 2010.
“It’s very effective for short international flying and longer domestic routes, but you will continue to see it focused on longer routes rather than shorter routes,” said Hodder.
With more purchased and leased A321s due to arrive in the coming years, the type looks to play an increasing role in Jetstar’s expanding route network, particularly as it strengthens its push into Asia and possibly the South Pacific, despite the challenges it has thrown up for the low cost carrier.
This story first appeared in the November 2009 edition of Australian Aviation. To read more stories like this, subscribe here.