Flying on Delta’s New Fuel-Saving Airbus A321neo

Delta Air Lines is betting that the fuel-saving, lower-emissions technology of Airbus’ new medium-range A321neo will help point the airline industry to a more sustainable future.

Flight Deck on Delta Air Lines new Airbus A321neo

The flight deck aboard Delta Air Lines’ newest narrowbody type, the Airbus A321neo, scheduled to enter service Friday. [Courtesy: Delta Air Lines]

(Aboard Delta Air Lines Flight 9979) — Delta Air Lines (NYSE: DAL) is betting that the fuel-saving, lower-emissions technology of their new Airbus (Euronext FR: AIR.FP) A321neo will lead to a sustainable future. 

The Atlanta-based airline invited FLYING on a ferry flight Wednesday of its first A321neo—a single-aisle twin engine airliner that boasts fuel savings of 20 percent per seat and an extended range of about 500 nm, over conventional A321 models. As Delta adds this new model to its fleet, fuel efficiency has become even more critical in light of spiking jet-A prices, which can take a big bite out of any carrier’s bottom line.  

At Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport (KATL), we board Ship 5001—tail number N501DA—mindful of the airline’s goals surrounding sustainability and reducing its carbon footprint. In fact, Delta likes the A321neo so much that it has placed firm orders to purchase 155 of the jets through 2027, including 26 to be delivered this year alone. 

Joining us on this special non-revenue flight are a handful of people, including journalists and Delta executives escorting Ship 5001 to begin revenue passenger service Friday between Boston Logan airport (KBOS) and San Francisco International (KSFO).

Parked at KBOS on Thursday, Delta's new Airbus A321neo promises additional range and 20 percent more fuel efficiency than Delta’s conventional A321s. [Courtesy: Delta Air Lines]

After a smooth takeoff and pleasant cruise segment, Delta’s senior vice president fleet and tech ops supply chain Mahendra Nair sat down with FLYING among the jet’s mostly empty 132 main cabin seats, to explain what makes the A321neo so right for Delta. 

From a pilot training perspective, the airplane offers scalability, says Nair, whose roots extend back to his time with commercial engines and services at GE Aviation. The A321neo allows for large-scale training synergies among pilots already familiar with the other A320 family members in Delta’s fleet, including the A319, A320, and A321. 

With a range of 4,000 nm, Delta will fly the A321neo on domestic transcontinental routes. “This is exactly where we want it to be, where our hub structures are growing,” Nair says. As the A321neos begin taking more transcon routes, Nair says the fleet’s existing Boeing 757s will be moving off those routes, shifting to flights with shorter distances. On similar legs, Boeing’s 757 burns about 3,000 more pounds of fuel than the A321neo, according to pilots.

In addition to the fuel-saving and sustainability aspects of the new airplane, Nair says it will contribute to the simplification of Delta’s fleet. “So we’ll have 600 aircraft in our narrowbody fleets that are just three categories: the A220s, the Boeing 737s, and the A320s—simplifying the categories for us.”

Delta’s Airbus A321neo narrowbodies are powered by twin Pratt & Whitney GTF geared turbofan engines.  [Courtesy: Delta Air Lines]

Secret Sauce

The secret sauce of the A321neo, is the “neo.” The acronym stands for “new engine option,” referring to the jet’s two Pratt & Whitney GTF geared turbofans. These powerplants specialize in high fuel efficiency and low noise signatures. Up on the flight deck, Delta pilot Capt. Steve Warrior says pilots would be surprised how quiet the engines are. So quiet, he says, that “you can hear a lot more wind noise. It has a very unique pitch for the throttle setting.”

Each GTF engine contains a sophisticated gearbox that allows the fan and turbine to run at different speeds. Because of this, the engine is shorter and lighter than conventional turbofans while the fan is larger and slower, creating more thrust with less fuel. The slower moving air through the powerplant also makes the engine much quieter. 

The engines are also certified to burn a 50 percent blend of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) and could eventually be certified to burn 100 percent. SAF burns cleaner than conventional fuel and is made from sustainable feedstocks like used cooking oil. These kinds of engines fit Delta’s plan to replace 10 percent of its fossil-based jet fuel with SAF by the end of 2030.

Pilot’s Perspective

Warrior, a former U.S. Air Force pilot, has flown a few airliners in his 24 years with Delta, including the Boeing 727, 737, 757, and 767. He’s also a veteran of Delta’s now-retired fleet of McDonnell-Douglas MD-88s, and Airbus’ A320 family. 

When asked about our fuel consumption during this flight, Warrior said roughly 22,290 pounds of fuel were loaded onto the jet before pushing in Atlanta. Factoring in a ground delay during taxiing, the A321neo burned about 13,000 pounds during the flight to Boston. It’s worth noting that by carrying so few passengers and luggage, much less fuel is required for ferry flights compared with typical revenue flights. 

How did Ship 5001’s fuel consumption compare with Delta’s conventional A321s? “We were looking at it earlier, and it’s burning about 1,400 pounds per hour less,” he says. Delta says it now has 127 conventional models, what Airbus calls the A321ceo (current engine option), in its fleet. 

Also from a pilot’s perspective, Warrior said the new airplane’s longer range could result in longer hours working on the flight deck. Instead of four- or five-hour narrowbody routes, “now we can easily fly seven hours, which will easily give us the ability to go from Seattle or Los Angeles or San Francisco to Hawaii and still have the necessary divert fuel,” Warrior says. “It basically gives us an opportunity to touch a lot more markets with this airframe at 194 seats than we’ve had—and with a 20 percent fuel reduction. For us, that’s huge.”

Ship 5001, Delta’s first Airbus A321neo, was produced at the Airbus manufacturing facility in Hamburg, Germany. [Courtesy: Delta Air Lines]

Fancy New Domestic First Class

Delta, which has been flying conventional A321s since 2016, chose to unveil the A321neo along with new domestic first-class seating that includes elements of the airline’s international first-class experience. New oversized seat-backs provide more room for a larger, high-definition screen where passengers can enjoy Delta’s next-gen wireless inflight entertainment system, created in-house by Delta’s new startup, Delta Flight Products.

“You’ll see this airplane in any airport with long domestic hauls,” says Delta vice president, brand experience, Mauricio Parise. “Boston, New York, Atlanta, L.A., San Francisco, Minneapolis, and Detroit.” 

Seats by RECARO and the design firm Factorydesign come with winged headrests for more privacy, 25 percent larger tray tables, and three times more storage space for personal items. “We worked very close with the operations team to understand what we call TTL—approved for taxi, takeoff, and landing,” Parise says. “There are spaces for little things, like a water bottle, making sure the right thing is in the right space so you don’t need to move as you take off, for safety reasons.”

Do Lower Fuel Costs Mean Lower Fares?

But where will that savings go? Will Delta pass it on to the consumer? Sort of, says Nair. “The price of airline tickets has probably grown the least over the past 25 to 35 years because airplanes have gotten more efficient with more range and more gauge over time,” Nair says. “So, is it one-for-one? Does it get passed on to the customer? It’s difficult to make that translation, but over time, it does make its way to the customer.”

Cleaner Burning, More Efficient Fleets

But airliners like the A321neo are just the beginning of what’s possible. The International Air Transport Association has outlined a roadmap showing how technological advances in design and propulsion might ideally help the entire industry cut carbon emissions in half by 2050, compared to levels in 2005. IATA’s outline includes advanced turbofan engine designs, but it also proposes the development of small short-haul airliners with fully electric propulsion systems that would enter service by 2035. 

Overall, Delta’s big bet on A321neos and their environmentally friendly and economical innovations aligns well with IATA goals to achieve net-zero carbon emissions across civil aviation by 2050.

Thom is a former senior editor for FLYING. Previously, his freelance reporting appeared in aviation industry magazines. Thom also spent three decades as a TV and digital journalist at CNN’s bureaus in Washington and Atlanta, eventually specializing in aviation. He has reported from air shows in Oshkosh, Farnborough and Paris. Follow Thom on Twitter @thompatterson.

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