In the pre-commercial aviation era, crossing the Atlantic Ocean meant enduring days of discomfort on ocean liners, battling rough waves and weather, and facing potential exposure to contagious illnesses. However, the advent of commercial flights transformed transatlantic travel into a luxury experience.
Pan Am introduced faster crossing times and lavish accommodations with its Boeing 314 flying boat in 1939. Subsequently, the jet age brought narrow-body aircraft into play, with BOAC’s de Havilland Comet 4 becoming the first scheduled transatlantic jet service in 1958. When the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8 followed suit, they also offered a tight single-aisle cabin configuration.
The turning point arrived in 1970 with the introduction of the wide-body Boeing 747, launching the era of “jumbo jets” dominating ocean-crossing routes, offering spaciousness and new passenger amenities.
But as airlines encountered new challenges such as rising fuel costs and crowded airports, they turned to next-generation narrow-body planes, such as the Boeing 757, for new point-to-point transatlantic crossings. This move reintroduced single-aisle operations to the congested market, gradually shaping travel’s evolution.
Boeing Losing Ground
Boeing’s position in the narrow-body transatlantic (TATL) market has been challenged since it last manufactured the 757 almost two decades ago. The 757 proved to be a successful aircraft for airlines such as United, Delta and American on routes from East Coast hubs to Western Europe.
But with only 1,050 757s produced, airlines were not keen on buying more, leaving a gap Boeing struggled to fill with its ultimately shelved “New Midsize Airplane” project.
While Boeing executives recently considered the narrow-body TATL market a “niche,” new developments show Airbus gaining ground with its extended-range A321neo variants. Many loyal Boeing 757 customers, including American Airlines and United, have turned to Airbus for planes like the A321LR and A321XLR (long-range and extra-long-range), leading to a significant market-share shift.
What Can Travelers Expect?
In North America, United’s first A321XLR is complete and nearing its entry into service. The airline plans to have 50 aircraft in its fleet, with all-new Polaris Business Class seats similar to those on its long-haul Boeing 777s and 787s.
Aviation journalist Ben Schlappig notes that United “will introduce an all-new Polaris Business Class seat for the A321XLR since the current Polaris seat can’t be installed on narrow-body aircraft.” The planes will also come with a Premium Plus section. Schlappig expects United will deploy these planes across the North Atlantic and to Latin America “on long and thin routes, like Newark to Bogotá and Edinburgh,” he says.
Similarly, American Airlines will install its new closed-door Flagship Suites on its upcoming 50 A321XLRs, which should launch in 2024. The planes will have a three-cabin layout, including Business, Premium Economy and Economy class.
According to View From the Wing publisher Gary Leff, you can expect to see the new American Airlines A321XLRs in New York-JFK and Philadelphia scheduled on European and high-end cross-country flights. “They will also show up in Charlotte, Chicago-O’Hare and Miami, operating thin routes to major European destinations and northern South America,” Leff says.
What’s Out There?
JetBlue is the largest TATL narrow-body operator. The airline offers affordable A321LR flights from New York and Boston to London, Paris, and Amsterdam, with its top-notch Mint class providing ample space and privacy.
With 13 Airbus A321XLRs on order, the New York-based airline has chosen a comfortable configuration of 24 Mint seats, laid out in a one-one configuration, with a pair of Mint Studios at the front of the cabin.
The Studios are more akin to first-class than business class, with their own wardrobes, suite doors, large work areas, buddy dining seat complete with side tables, and the largest TV currently available on North American carriers at 22 inches.
Each Mint seat is furnished with Tuft & Needle’s Adaptive Foam cushions, a memory foam pillow and a customizable blanket. Also, for all its TATL flights, JetBlue has partnered with Delicious Hospitality Group (DHG), a renowned restaurant company in New York City, to provide in-flight catering. The airline offers menus inspired by popular dishes at DHG’s New York restaurants, including Bar Pasquale and Charlie Bird.
European carriers are also playing the TATL narrow-body game. La Compagnie’s all-Business Class concept offers flights from Newark to Paris daily. The seating arrangement on its new A321LRs is old-fashioned at two-two, but the Collins Aerospace Diamond lie-flat seats are a significant improvement over the previous 757 seats, which only reclined at an angle.
La Compagnie treats its passengers to a delightful in-flight dining experience. The four-course menu includes a cold starter, a choice of hot dishes, a cheese plate, and a delectable dessert. A sweet and salty snack is offered before landing, ensuring a satisfying culinary journey.
The airline has collaborated with a team of esteemed local chefs. Pastry chef Yann Couvreur brings his expertise to desserts on flights departing Paris-Orly and Nice, while chef Lorenzo Cogo curates the menu’s starters on flights departing Milan. Moreover, wine experts from Bettane + Desseauve have also contributed to the overall experience.
Regarding entertainment, La Compagnie has made improvements by adding seatback screens. Previously, passengers were given iPads to stream content. La Compagnie’s Wi-Fi provider is Viasat, with free usage. TAP Air Portugal, Scandinavian Airlines System (SAS) and Aer Lingus have opted for a staggered seating arrangement in their Business Class cabins, which includes both two-two and one-one seats—much like JetBlue’s initial Mint layout. As noted by numerous frequent travelers, this configuration may limit privacy. If you are seated by the window, it may be challenging to reach the aisle directly, requiring you to climb over another passenger.
TAP operates flights from Lisbon to Boston and New York on its Airbus A321LR with 16 seats at the front. One of the advantages of these planes is that they have adjustable air vents above each seat, which can help regulate your body temperature during long-haul flights. The provided bedding is cozy but can feel cumbersome if you’re too warm. Panasonic provides TAP’s onboard Wi-Fi and in-flight entertainment.
Another TATL narrow-body operator is SAS, which flies to New York and Boston from Copenhagen and Gothenburg. The cabin’s 22 Thompson Aero Vantage seats are well-padded and spacious. These seats measure 23 inches in width and can be converted into a 76-inch lie-flat bed. Passengers also have access to a universal power outlet, USB-A chargers, personal air vents, reading lights and a magnetic loop for securing noise-canceling headphones. Additionally, Filippa K amenity kits are provided to each passenger.
In terms of entertainment, SAS passengers can enjoy a variety of options on a 16-inch high-definition screen, including movies, games, music, TV shows, and a flight map. Complimentary Wi-Fi remains reliable throughout the transatlantic journey.
Aer Lingus’ A321LR fleet offers a comfortable travel experience for passengers with 16 flatbed seats in Business Class and 168 seats in Economy. The airline provides Voya amenity kits on every flight.
One of the standout features of Aer Lingus is its exceptionally generous Wi-Fi policy. Business Class travelers are given a voucher for free Wi-Fi access for the entire flight, with no data caps or time limits. And if passengers don’t utilize the free voucher on their current flight, they can save it for use on another journey.
Is Narrow-Body the Way to Go?
The aviation industry is witnessing a transformation in long-haul travel on narrow-body jets. Airbus leads in passenger comfort with wider cabins and longer range, but skepticism lingers about flying long distances on single-aisle jets.
James Asquith, CEO of the new Airbus A380 start-up Global Airlines, raises concerns about potential turbulence and limited legroom in narrow-body cabins, especially in economy class. “Narrow bodies have no space to stretch legs and move around the cabin, as well as fewer features, most notably in economy,” he says.
But seat-design advancements are improving narrow-body comfort, offering surprising advantages over larger planes. Business Class seats provide more width than on wide bodies, and airlines are reconfiguring their single-aisle fleets with innovative seating arrangements, promising a better long-haul experience.
TATL narrow-body operators such as Icelandair are embracing Airbus A321LR/XLR aircraft for efficiency and passenger comfort. And with air space and airport congestion, the trend of smaller long-range Airbus planes is set to continue, with airlines ordering these aircraft for new point-to-point routes that wouldn’t be feasible with bigger planes.
While wide-body aircraft remain essential for long-haul travel, the rising popularity of comfortable and efficient narrow-body configurations heralds exciting times for travelers on extended flights. Enrique Perrella contributed reporting.