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

Sky-high hopes for a flatbed business class could be brought back to Earth, if the Qantas config is anything to go by.

By David Flynn, July 28 2022
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.
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 737, and sufficient for non-stop flights to most of south-east 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 couldn't 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 of passengers 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 puts its current Boeing 737 business class in the shade.
Qantas says the A321XLR will puts 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 MAX, which 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 allows scope for a seat that’s leagues ahead of Qantas’ Boeing 737 business class.

A good example of this is Thompson’s Vantage Duo, which 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 to 130 degrees, compared to a typical maximum of 110 degrees for your average business class seat.

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

Thompson Aero Seating's Vantage Duo staggers its seats for greater privacy.
Thompson Aero Seating's Vantage Duo staggers 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 concept, which 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 centre aisle take on something of a wedge shape, and are not only staggered but physically separated so that passengers in the window seat can sidle 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 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 Traveller, Qantas declined to comment on the A321XLR’s seating or cabin configuration.

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

Qantas

19 Apr 2012

Total posts 1445

I think the first tranche of 20 or so XLRs will be used for transcontinental plus Perth and Adelaide into Asia. Brisbane into Asia is also possible. This will leave A332s for Sydney and Melbourne into Asia more broadly and 787s for longer range to non A380 ports in the US Canada and continental Europe. Five or six hours without a bed is fine.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

07 Jul 2019

Total posts 7

"Five or six hours without a bed is fine."  

Not for overnight flight.

29 Jan 2012

Total posts 130

Totally agree. If travelling 8 hrs or longer, then beds are a bonus, but for shorter flights, generous recline and pitch is the right mix. 

First Class in the 70's on QF 707's were recline and pitch effective (No beds then) and passengers flew 36 hrs to Europe. Beds for 6 hr flights, not necessary. QF - simply bring back customer service and general seating comforts and passengers will be fine. Current 30 inch Y pitch - really!!!!!

This really mystifies me. I have NO argument with Qantas having one fleet of domestic and short-haul A321XLRs with really good recliners like the Vantage Duo, and another fleet of XLRs with lie-flat beds for to/from Asia. But why would they make the XLR's big public debut with recliners and then fly this long-range jet on routes like SYD-MEL-BNE, AKL etc? It would make far more sense to bring in the XLR with flatbeds and maybe do some domestic runs for familiarisation and publicity and then begin long-range.

Really interesting analysis, thanks David. I think you're right, we will see Qantas split the A321XLR fleet between short-haul and long-haul configs. We don't need lie-flat beds on domestic routes, this is an area I feel QF and VA went overboard on with their A330s although of course they also had Asian flying in mind for those planes. A really good recliner with a high degree of comfort, privacy and features is sufficient. But I agree with Lost In Transit above when he says he's at a loss for why Qantas is making this version of the A321XLR the first one to arrive and then be put onto short-haul routes.

24 Aug 2011

Total posts 1108

QF need to replace their oldest 738s (VX* series) which are now over 20 years old.  These will be retired as the first A321XLRs arrive hence the domestic configuration.  Of course, that does raise the question as to why QF have ordered all XLRs when a standard A321 is all they need for domestic work particularly if they are going to end up with two very different configurations at the end anyway.  

I do note the wording QF has used in saying there is no reduction in space.  That is not the same as saying the pitch will be the same between the 737s and A321s.  It is likely QF is looking at the new slim form Y seats which will enable them to trim Y class pitch from 30" to 29". These will mean available space remains the same but some of these slimline seats are rock hard and quite uncomfortable.  It is also likely they will use the tiny toilets as seen on AA A321's which will also mean there is a bit more space to spread J class over; the downside being the Y experience gets progressively worse.

12 Dec 2012

Total posts 1041

They haven't ordered "all XLRs". Qantas Group currently has 109 A320 family aircraft on order. Only 36 are XLRs.

We don't yet know the break up of the order between Qantas and Jetstar.

18 Sep 2015

Total posts 126

This is a bad move for us passengers. If QF have a mix some of the same aircraft type with lie flats and some with recliners, then sure as eggs you will have booked on an overnight back from Asia on a lie flat only to find they have swapped aircraft for one with recliners. SQ have the right idea - put lie flats in all the new narrow bodies.

Qantas

19 Apr 2012

Total posts 1445

I’m not sure they will have a mixed seating fleet. Like the A332 they will maximise utilisation with overnight flights into Asia from smaller ports not currently or well served. Adelaide, Canberra, and more ports from Perth (even to South India). An improved recliner is where they are heading in my mind. Getting maximum utilisation (and flexibility) out of their fleet is the name of the game.

05 Mar 2015

Total posts 383

That's a very good observation about Qantas talking about keeping the same "space" between the seats, not the "pitch". I would absolutely expect economy to be a slimmer design which could free up a bit more space for new types of business class seats which need more actual pitch.

Forgot to say I flew on the CX A321neo a few months ago after HKG lifted its ban on transit passengers and with most of Asia open, the business class on this is pretty good. With QF taking delivery of its A321XLRs at the end of 2024 I think this means it would need to lock down the configuration by the end of this year at latest, I wouldn't be surprised if the airline has already shortlisted its seat suppliers and has even already choose the 'winner', if not then that would have to happen in the next few months. I imagine David Caon will be working on the design of these seats too so you have to allow time for that and before they are actually manufactured.

20 Oct 2015

Total posts 238

From a technology perspective I would think these A321XLR business class seats HAVE to have Bluetooth audio from the IFE screens so you can use your own headphones plus AC, USB-C, USB-A and wireless device charging.

18 Sep 2015

Total posts 126

That's assuming that Qantas actually provides any screens!

A pitch of about 42 in business I would consider reasonable. 

30 in economy is abysmal. I recall not so long ago the b767 with generous space in both. And domestic / short international. Even the Cairns / Hawaii / Los Angeles was great in in business. 

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

08 Mar 2022

Total posts 5

Good analysis

I appreciate the first lot of 321XLRs are for domestic replacements. But with the likely split of the type into domestic and Asia missions, I hope I'm not "pleasantly surprised" to find my SIN-SYD Biz seat one day has been subbed in with a domestic model.

08 May 2020

Total posts 37

Great article, looking forward to seeing the innovations.  Been impressed with the choices made in the relatively recent A380 refurbs. I’m sure thinner economy seats will play a part.   

QF

11 Jul 2014

Total posts 798

Looks amazing can't wait for 2024 to come around and try these new planes out, I wonder what the market share of Qantas will be in the domestic market in 2024.

28 Jul 2022

Total posts 1

Another consideration is the number of cabin crew QF will use.  Currently 12 J pax on a 738 has one (usually the CSM) dedicated to JCL.  Given the number of exits I would assume 6 cabin crew minimum meaning a possibility of 2 in JCL.  Anyone who has flown QF 738 JCL on a transcontinental would know if takes 2 crew upfront to deliver the service QF envision - and that's with 12 pax.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

13 Nov 2018

Total posts 97

I fear we may see the recliner 321XLR J class on some 8 hr overnight routes… I want to be able to lie down on overnight flights. It’s why I pay a small fortune for business flights!

11 Nov 2012

Total posts 3

I’m sure recliners are fine for SYD-MEL which is a route I rarely fly. Where they are not fine is on the 4-5 hour PER to East Coast routes. I only book the A330s on these flights and will change my schedule if I am ever downgraded to a B737. 

When you are in your 70s and have some medical issues lie flats are the only way to go :)

20 Oct 2015

Total posts 238

Completely understand the desire for lie-flat beds if you have medical issues! When I do SYD-PER flights I always opt for an A330 if I can, I don't put the seat flat but I certainly like to recline it a good amount and of course it's just so much a better seat in every way than the 737.

It would be interesting to see if Qantas brought in the XLRs with lie-flat beds and could schedule them so they do say SYD-PER and then continue on a route like PER-SIN or BKK or HKG, and the same for other routes from Perth to east coast capitals and then on a longer leg to Asia. That way they could get lie-flat beds onto a lot of east-west flights.

23 Apr 2013

Total posts 3

I don't get why Qantas would buy XLRs for domestic flights. They're heavier, have less cargo space, cost more, and a regular A321neo can easily do SYD-PER. If QF wanted a fleet that seasonally alternated from domestic to regional international, the A321LR would make more sense, because its fuel tanks are removable. You only really need the XLR if you need the 700nm extra range or you need the max amount of cargo space and are flying further than the A321neo's 3500nm.

Something doesn't add up... or I'm missing something obvious. One or the other!

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

28 Oct 2011

Total posts 468

Is it possible for Qantas to do what American has done in Business on its transcontinental A321s? That is two J seats on each side of the aisle, angled such that there is sufficient space to allow them to convert to flat beds. 

Thai Airways International - Royal Orchid Plus

15 Jan 2013

Total posts 429

It would make a lot of sense if they ever with the new planes reintroduced Adelaide to Singapore services(Not everyone has the need or wants to go via Perth to London).

JKH
JKH

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

23 Sep 2017

Total posts 152

One thing’s for certain, the QF 737 J/C seats are old hat and need to go. Not relevant anymore.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

01 Apr 2011

Total posts 43

What Alan Joyce calls "exciting plans" will bear no resemblance whatsoever to what we readers of ET think meets that description.


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