Here’s How American Airlines Will Use The New Airbus A321XLR In Charlotte

In June 2019 American Airlines ordered 50 Airbus A321XLRs to be delivered between 2023 and 2025, and which are meant to fly to small cities in Europe and to close-in South America. The planes will have lie flat business class and a premium economy cabin.

At a recent internal question and answer session with pilots, Vice President of Network and Schedule Planning Brian Znotins shared how American is thinking about using the Airbus A321XLR in Charlotte and how it will trade off with existing widebody service. He offered that,

  • Boeing 777s will stay in Charlotte, especially to London Heathrow.
  • Charlotte should see A321XLRs flights in addition to departures with that aircraft from Philadelphia, Chicago O’Hare, and New York JFK.
  • A321XLRs will mostly be additive, allowing for new routes
  • It will also swap with widebodies seasonally – widebodies in the summer, the narrowbody over the winter to Europe when demand drops
  • But Charlotte is a stretch to reach some European destinations using the XLR so can’t replace all widebody usage in any case.


American Airlines Airbus A321 at New York JFK

Charlotte has always been a red-headed stepchild for international. It sees a lot of connecting traffic on leisure routes, supporting summer seasonal Europe and Caribbean, but hasn’t been the focus of European growth for American Airlines or US Airways before that. Naturally pilots flying Boeing 777s out of Charlotte are worried that flying will go away.

However the Airbus A321XLR will be good for Charlotte because its lower costs, and ability to fill planes with fewer passengers, means that Charlotte can support more international flying. There are only so many European destinations from Charlotte that will support a Boeing 777, more that American Airlines can fly to with the smaller XLR.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. Does flying a smaller plane affect pilot pay? Do they have to certify on this particular model?

  2. I’m always wondering what AA’s fascination with CLT is when they have massive unused terminal capacity at JFK in the largest and wealthiest city in the Country that itself can support all of these European routes without needing feed from elsewhere, and which will much more easily fill the front cabins with more premium corporate flyers than elsewhere, and is a final destination for local travelers in every European destination that they might fly to. Is operating out of CLT so much cheaper than operating out of JFK that its worth flying from a city with less than 10% (arguably half that if you include the entire catchment area) of the population and an even smaller fraction of corporate customers, and even fewer of the sorts of firms (money center banks, investment banks, law firms, tech firms, etc.) that have expense account flyers, and where few foreign customers will want to fly? I really don’t get it, and it sort of reminds me of the decades spent trying to make STL work before finally throwing in the towel.

  3. @Mak – I live in Charlotte. 4 things about CLT –

    1. CLT cost a lot less than JFK. My understanding is it the cheapest major hub in the US
    2.. Geographically it fits better as a SE connecting hub than PHL or MIa
    3. As a long established hub (Piedmont even before US Air) it has crew based in area, mechanical facilities, etc that would be hard and costly to replicate. Cost of living in CLT is also well below JFK
    4. JetBlue is already at JFK and AA/JetBlue partnership allows AA to leverage that without having a hub there.

  4. @AC I’ve got no doubt that you’re right about CLT having very favorable cost structures – but there is the other side of that same coin. What I’m doubtful of is that CLT is the best place to find customers to fill those places and especially the front cabin. Are they really going to fill a plane to say Hamburg or Lisbon as easily, or at remotely similar fares, as they could at JFK? Putting to one side the larger pool of NYC customers, every Hamburger or Lisboeta is a potential customer for New York, but very few will ever want to go to CLT. Like AA has seen with ATH and TLV, the demand at JFK is so wide and deep that I can’t imagine that their return on investment could be remotely as good at CLT than JFK. I remember when US Air couldn’t make Sao Paulo work, and that’s got to be one of AA’s most profitable routes out of JFK in the entire network.

  5. @Mak JFK is slot restricted, which means that for every new flight being added, another needs to be taken away. To maximize revenue, it makes sense for them to fly widebodies in/out of JFK instead of smaller single aisle A321XLR .

  6. @mak CLT is the most profitable hub at AA

    There’s nothing here indicating the modest additions to CLT intl service are coming at the expense of JFK. There are only so many unsaturated routes out of JFK considering all the competition – and AA has found the low hanging ones, like GRU and TLV.

  7. @Mak – If you’re flying Baton Rouge to Munich, you’re going to be changing planes no matter what. Why not do so in an airport that’s not slot constrained (with presumably more flights), has a lot less bad winter weather, and is already an AA hub so if something goes wrong there’s a much better chance of having a plane as a replacement. CLT has a lot of people, a lot of money in the region, and a ton of connecting traffic options. Why venture into the madhouse that’s JFK if CLT is a viable option? You are right that absolutely nowhere has the USA has more originating traffic to Europe than New York but there’s a lot of secondary or tertiary cities that have to connect anyway, so why not CLT?

  8. ATL has the lowest cost per enplaned passenger and ATL is the reason why AA has and needs to have CLT. In contrast, UA has no hub presence in the SE US and there is no other city that has the abililty to develop a hub.
    It is not a knock on Charlotte to note that Atlanta is a far larger and richer market and ATL is the crown jewel US carrier hub not just in the US but in the entire country. For all of its other problems, Atlanta has managed ATL well and helped DL build the world’s largest hub which supports widebody service to all over the world. AA’s hub at DFW is notable in its global presence but it is a higher cost airport, far less convenient for connecting traffic, and is geographically much further “out of the way” of US national and global traffic flows.

    CLT is the 3rd largest US airline hub based on the number of flights but many of the flights are on regional jets and the airport is not near as well designed for connecting traffic. However, Charlotte is growing along with the SE.

    The A321XLR can help AA in CLT but there are a lot of people that think that range alone will help the A321 do what widebodies cannot do. The A321XLR will have high (if not very high) labor costs per seat mile because it will still take 3 pilots but that cost will be spread over half of the number of passengers of a widebody like the A330 or 787; pilot costs are going up as the pilot shortage deepens. Further, CLT is heavily dependent on connecting traffic so the amount of revenue on each segment will be less than at larger hubs with higher percentages of local traffic.

    American has been overhubbed on the East Coast since the USAirways merger and that has resulted in a continuous effort to try and keep multiple international hubs going. The Northeast agreement with JetBlue still leaves AA trying to connect passengers over JFK – where it is a distant number 2 internationally to Delta and number 3 among the combined NYC airports. PHL has already suffered and AA will find it harder and harder to support PHL international flights as their domestic hub becomes much more competitive. DL is larger in most of the SE and pulls international traffic via ATL, JFK and DTW, all of which are stronger international hubs than AA at CLT. AA does carry some Florida transatlantic traffic via MIA which is not about high yields but high volumes, which could help AA’s NE hubs and CLT. And AA is trying to have some international presence in BOS but will trail DL regardless of how much B6 does.

    AA has a history of thinking that specific airplanes can fix their structural and network problems and CLT is liking to be yet another example. If the A321XLR can do anything for AA, it will likely be at PHL, JFK and BOS and they still will have a domestic and international disadvantage compared to other airlines.

  9. Any thoughts on what routes they’ll use these birds on our of ORD? Guessing DUB and bring back SNN? Wondering what other routes this plane has the legs for from O’Hare

  10. @ptahcha Is JFK still slot restricted today, post Covid? This would certainly answer my confusion, but the place certainly seems a lot less crowded these days and I would have imagined that slots are available.

    @Christian I can’t disagree that if I were flying Baton Rouge to Munich, I would prefer to fly through CLT than JFK, but how big a market is BTR-MUC (and how big is MUC-BTR as compared to MUC-JFK?). Maybe my assumptions are just way off, but I wouldn’t think it a close contest.

  11. @Mak CPEP is much lower at CLT than JFK. Also, the market between NYC and most of the larger European destinations can be supported with O&D traffic. My guess is that the additional flights from CLT will cater mostly to connecting traffic and mostly to the larger European destinations. I could also see them replacing the Raleigh-Durham London flight with one of these A321XLR. I think people looking to go to secondary markets like Lisbon or Dublin will still be going through JFK. Also, I think the big difference between STL is that CLT is extremely profitable for AA due to low cost and and the emergence of CLT as a finance hub. CLT typically maintains pretty high fares for O&D traffic and companies there are willing to pay that premium. During the pandemic CLT did not feel the effects nearly as bad as some of their other hubs did.

  12. Mak
    JFK is still slot restricted but the FAA has given usage waivers and extended them (Gary has covered it).
    And the power of CLT, just like ATL, is that it sits pretty squarely in the middle of tens of thousands of city pairs including the SE to Europe.
    Even though airlines don’t publish profitability by hub, there is little doubt that ATL is the most profitable airline hub in the world – probably driving a large portion of Delta’s profits and Delta was the most profitable airline in the world pre-covid.
    AA in CLT can duplicate some of the traffic flows even to Europe but probably won’t do it as efficiently as Delta via ATL.
    Not only are widebodies more cost efficient than narrowbodies for longhaul flights (that is why they were invented) but DL has the highest percentage of mainline aircraft in ATL and also the highest number of average seats per flight at ATL which makes each flight more profitable, just as it does for Southwest with no regional jets and the ULCCs that have densely packed aircraft.

    And, ATL-MUC is a long-standing year round DL route which is connected to Baton Rouge. You highlighted the power of DL’s ATL hub via your example. CLT-MUC started because of the auto industry but it has 2 carriers in it; it is doubtful that AA does as well as LH.

    Munich is, of course a Lufthansa hub which neither American or Delta cooperate with but the sheer amount of traffic via ATL allows DL to serve some cities from ATL that it doesn’t fly from more competitive coastal hubs. ie DL served Dubai from ATL and doesn’t fly to MUC from JFK.

  13. @Mark the city of Charlotte is the second largest banking capital in the US behind New York City. There several large corporations all within a 2.5 hour drive to CLT. It 2.5 to hours drive of 2 state capitals. BMW North American plant in only 1.5 drive. Several of your statements are flawed.

  14. I have lived in Charlotte for the last 13 years and have never flown to Europe from CLT on AA. Most of my flying is TPAC. Those flights on AA leave from DFW or ORD (no longer) or rarely LAX. For me, TATL on AA has been almost always JFK or rarely MIA, and once I took a 20 minute flight from CLT to RDU to connect to a 777-200 flight to LHR. I wonder how the 321XLR will affect the international routes out of RDU which AA has made a sort of mini hub 100 miles from CLT.

    My only experience with CLT customs was a breeze. On the other hand, the Admirals Clubs at CLT are some of the worst in the system. There are no showers and even though the main C/D club is closed, it is my understanding it won’t be renovated to the standard of the B Club and other AA clubs. Thank goodness CLT finally got a Centurion Lounge. It is swamped of course.

    I hope the A321XLR lie-flat seats in business all have direct access to the aisle.

    If CLT is AA’s most profitable hub it may be because there is a lot of regional traffic where costs are lower and fares are higher (my assumption) and comparatively little cheap international traffic.

    @JorgeGeorge Paez,, 777 pilots will definitely have to be retrained and recertified if they are moving to an Airbus. Union contracts usually award more pay to pilots of larger planes which is where many of the most senior pilots wind up.

  15. CLT is OK. For many non-hub flyers, connecting in CLT is easier than JFK. Nothing against JFK but it is restricted and airlines like AA put smaller market inbound flights into LGA and expect people to connect to Europe via JFK with no train service between them. It’s a mess. The 321XLR is no 757 but it can reach the UK from ORD with its 4,700nm range. Paris is closer to the edge of range (Eastbound at 4,150nm). I would say that during certain times of year the 321XLR will not have the range going West on TATL routes to make Chicago from the continent. Chicago will likely get some UK stuff and into South America on this plane. Could we see a WN like a model of stop and go “direct” routes from places like ORD. So you have ORD-LHR-FCO where the LHR-FCO is a fifth freedom splash and go like you’d see Southwest do on an STL-OMA-DEN “direct” flight run. Maybe tech stops in DUB with pre-clearance will be popular with this plane. We’ll see.

  16. 321XLR is good for AA because it will free up wide bodies for new destinations. Not only that it’s Introducing secondary markets in Europe that AA would be profitable using a wide body. Especially in Eastern Europe.
    The 321 XLR is a great replacement for the 757 aircrafts that were retired and good enough to feed domestic connections

  17. 1) AA (actually USAirways) inked a long term contract with CLT for gates somewhere on the level of $100/month, maybe even less. That’s how PIT got crushed. The city of Charlotte won big time. JFK and all the Democrat mafia types will never cut a deal like that for Terminal 8 at JFK Mak.
    2) The spoke system in and out of CLT operates like a Swiss watch compared to JFK; slots aside, JFK depends heavily on locals and overnight stays to fill those wide body airplanes taxiing around the airport. The feed to support international travel could be overwhelming is they had an additional runway (they’re working on that).
    3) The airline (AA in particular) will make a killing on pilot costs because the 777 guy/gal is Group 4 pay vs Group 2 Airbus pay. The 777 pilot will not be bidding back to the Airbus just to drink beer in Shannon, too much money lost.

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