Boeing 787 vs. Airbus A321: How Do They Compare?

Boeing 787 and Airbus A321 aircraft are different in many respects. Whilst both are twin-engine aircraft, that is perhaps where the similarities end. The 787 is a significantly larger and heavier aircraft than the A321 and they tend to serve different markets.

The newer 787 first went into service in 2011 compared to 1994 for the A321. Both are highly successful and popular aircraft with airlines and passengers, and both are still in production with large order backlogs. In this article, I’ll compare these two aircraft from a number of different perspectives, including physical attributes, range, orders, and customers.

Boeing 787 vs. Airbus A321: How Do They Compare?

History

Airbus A321 is part of the A320 narrow-body twinjet family and first flew commercially in 1994 as the A321-100. The “-100” was quickly followed in 1997 by the A321-200. The A321-200 came with an increased fuel tank capacity, maximum take-off weight, and range.

The A321neo (new engine option) variant first flew commercially in 2017. With more efficient engines and other efficiency improvements, the A321neo provides improved fuel economy, longer range, and additional payload compared to older variants. The neo engines – CFM International’s LEAP-1A and Pratt & Whitney’s PurePower PW1100G-JM geared turbofans – are also quieter, improving travel comfort in the aircraft cabin.

With the introduction of the neo variants, older A321 versions became known as the A321ceo (current engine option).

Airbus A321

The longer-range A321LR first started flying commercially in 2018 and offers a range of up to 4,000nm The A321XLR (extra-long range) successfully accomplished its first flight on June 15th, 2022, and is now in its flight test campaign to secure type certification. The A321XLR is expected to feature 15% more range than the A321LR.

Airbus expects the first A321XLR deliveries to take place in the first quarter of 2024, with American Airlines as the likely launch customer. Other airlines are showing strong interest in the XLR too – Airbus has received sizable orders from Delta Air Lines, IndiGo, Wizz Air, and Qantas among others.

Below is an overview of all five A321 variants:

Aircraft Model First In Service
A321-100ceo 1994
A321-200ceo 1997
A321neo 2017
A321LR 2018
A321XLR Q1 2024 (est.)

The 787 family, on the other hand, is available in three variants:

Aircraft Model Type First In Service
787-8 Passenger 2011
787-9 Passenger 2014
787-10 Passenger 2018

Its development was driven by a need to produce more fuel-efficient aircraft. Boeing targeted 20% less consumption than the aircraft that the 787 was to replace, (such as the 767), a carrying capacity of 200 to 300 passengers, and deployment mainly on point-to-point routes of up to 8,500nm (15,700km). The Dreamliner was the first airliner developed with an airframe made mostly from composite materials.

The first 787 was delivered to ANA in 2011. The stretched B787-9 entered service in 2014, also with ANA. The further stretched B787-10 entered service with Singapore Airlines in 2018.

Boeing 787-8

Dimensions

Let’s take a look at some key physical characteristics and see how these two aircraft measure up against each other:

Aircraft Model Length/ m Wingspan/ m Tail Height/m Fuselage Width/ m MTOW/ tonnes
787-8 56.7 60.1 16.9 5.77 227.9
787-9 62.8 17.1 254.0
787-10 68.3
A321ceo 44.5 35.8 11.8 3.95 93.5
A321neo (LR) 97.0
A321XLR 101.0

In all respects, the 787 is a significantly larger and heavier aircraft than the A321. The wider 787 fuselage allows up to nine seats abreast in economy class compared to six seats abreast in the A321. The A321 variants have a common set of dimensions but have varying MTOWs.

Boeing 787-10

Range

All 787 variants have relatively long ranges which vary from around 11,700km to 14,000km.

With its impressive 330 minutes (5.5 hours) ETOPS (Extended-range Twin-engine Operational Performance Standards) certification, the 787 has proven to be a highly adaptable all-purpose aircraft, and it operates some of the longest air routes in the world such as Tokyo-Boston, Los Angeles-Melbourne, and the incredible London-Perth route. But, the 787 is also deployed by some airlines on some very short routes such as domestic routes in Japan, confirming how versatile this aircraft can be.

The A321ceo range is around 6,000km, whereas the A321neo offers a slightly longer range of 7,400km, thanks to its LR variant. The game-changing A321XLR will offer a further extended range of 8,700km. With a maximum flying time of 11 hours, the A321XLR will be suited to a wide range of routes not previously possible with narrowbody aircraft.

All A321 variants are ETOPS (Extended-range Twin-engine Operational Performance Standards) certified for 180 minutes since 2004 (EASA) and 2006 (FAA). The ranges of the 787 and A321 variants are shown in the table below:

Aircraft Model Range
B787-8 7,305nm (13,530km)
B787-9 7,565nm (14,010km)
B787-10 6,330nm (11,730km)
A321ceo 3,200nm/5,950km (with sharklets)
A321neo 3,700nm/6,850km
A321LR 4,000nm/7,400km
A321XLR 4,700nm/8,700km

Airbus A321LR

Capacity

The table below shows the passenger typical 2-class cabin configuration seating capacities of the 787 variants published by Boeing:

Model Passengers (Typical 2-Class Seating)
787-8 248
787-9 296
787-10 336

The twin-aisle 787 typically has eight or nine seats abreast in economy class (3-2-3, 2-4-2, 3-3-3), with nine seats abreast being the more common configuration. Seat rows can be arranged in four to seven abreast in first or business, e.g. 1–⁠2–⁠1,2–⁠2–⁠2, or 2–⁠3–⁠2. As an example, British Airways 4-class B787s are four abreast in first class (2-2), seven abreast in business and premium economy class (2-3-2), and nine abreast in economy class (3-3-3).

Airbus’ typical 2-class and maximum seating capacities for the A321 variants are shown in the table below.

Aircraft Typical 2-Class Seating Capacity Maximum Seating Capacity
A321ceo 170 – 210 220
A321neo/XLR 180 – 220 244

In practice, we see a variety around these numbers as airlines have fitted out these aircraft in 1-class, 2-class, 3-class, and even 4-class configurations. In some premium cabins, there are lie-flat seats which reduce overall seat density.

Looking at a variety of airlines operating A321 aircraft (Air Asia, American Airlines, British Airways, Cebu Pacific, easyjet, Frontier Airlines, Indigo, JetBlue, Lufthansa, Spirit Airlines, Starlux, Vistara, Wizz Air), actual fitted-out seat numbers typically vary as follows:

Aircraft 1-class 2-class 3-class 4-class
A321 200 – 239 154 – 240 138 – 196 102*

*American Airlines A321-200 V1 (First Class – 10, Business Class – 20, Premium Economy Class (Main Cabin Extra) -36, Economy Class – 36)

The single-aisle A321 typically offers six seats across each aisle (3-3) in economy class. Where business class is offered, the typical seating layout offers four seats per row (2-2).

Customers and Orders

Boeing 787 deliveries to the end of April 2023 totaled 1,054 aircraft and, of these, the split between the three variants is as follows:

  • 787-8: 388
  • 787-9: 587
  • 787-10: 79

To date, the 787-9 accounts for 56% of the total 787 deliveries. At the end of April 2023, Boeing had 592 unfulfilled orders for the 787, the majority of which were for the 787-9 (76%).

Adding deliveries and unfulfilled orders together, the 787-9 is the most popular 787 variant with a total of 1,034 aircraft, representing 63% of all 787 deliveries and unfulfilled orders combined at the end of April 2023. In total, the 787 deliveries and unfulfilled orders at the end of April 2023 were 1,646 aircraft (1,054 deliveries and 592 unfulfilled orders).

The most significant 787 airline customers include United Airlines, All Nippon Airways, American Airlines, Qantas, Etihad, Qatar Airways, Japan Airlines, British Airways, Singapore Airlines, and leasing companies such as International Lease Finance Corporation and Air Lease Corporation.

Boeing 787-9

As of the end of April 2023, a total of 6,458 A321 aircraft have been ordered, of which 2,798 (43%) have been delivered. Airbus has a significant backlog of A321neo orders yet to be delivered. The breakdown is as follows:

  • A321ceo: 1,791 orders of which 1,784 were delivered
  • A321neo: 4,667 orders of which 1,014 were delivered

The top 3 customers for the A321 (ceo plus neo variant combined) as of the end of April 2023 included Wizzair, Indigo, and Air Asia. As you can see, ‘low cost’ airlines are very significant A321 customers, taking the top three spots. Whilst there are over 150 separate customers for the A321, the top 10 customers alone account for over 40% of total orders.

By the end of April 2023, an incredible total of 6,458 A321 aircraft have been ordered, of which only 2,798 (43%) have been delivered. The vast majority of this order backlog is for A321neo aircraft as the vast majority of A321ceo orders have now been delivered (21.7% of A321neo orders delivered and 99.6% of A321ceo orders delivered at the end of April 2023).

Airbus A321neo

787 vs. A321: Summary

The A321 remains a key member of Airbus’ narrowbody commercial aircraft portfolio which competes with similar aircraft manufactured by Boeing and Embraer. The highly-successful long-range 787 replaces Boeing’s older widebody aircraft such as the 767 and competes head-to-head with Airbus’s widebody A350.

Both the 787 and the A321 benefit commercially from ETOPS certification, with the 787’s impressive 330-minute certification significantly in excess of the A321’s more modest 180 minutes.

Both the 787 and the A321 are in full production with large order backlogs. The number of A321 orders far outweighs those of the 787 (by almost four times). However, this is not that surprising given the different markets that they serve and the 17 years gap between the respective operational launches of the A321 and the 787.

1 thought on “Boeing 787 vs. Airbus A321: How Do They Compare?”

  1. This comparison is definitely not representative, as both aircraft (are supposed to) cover a different market. The A321XLR competes with the Boeing 737 family just like the rest of the A320 family, and the Boeing 787 competes with the A350.

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