Washington, D.C. — On Wednesday, the Airbus A321neo made its inaugural revenue flight, between San Francisco (SFO), and the Nation’s capital, Washington D.C. (DCA). The launch customer, Virgin America, operated the fittingly-designated “Flight #1” (callsign “Redwood 1”).
All of Virgin Americas’ aircraft are christened with whimsical nose-art names. So it seemed appropriate that N921VA, the latest and biggest addition to the airline’s fleet, was named the “Neo Kid On The Block”.
This inaugural flight took place eighteen months after Virgin America agreed to acquire ten A321neos (short for “new engine option”). As the “Neo Kid” rotated out of SFO, the airline officially launched two new products: the aircraft type, and the next-generation LEAP-1A engines that powered it.
The last of the ten new aircraft are expected to be delivered by the end of third quarter 2018. All will be leased from GE Capital Aviation Services (GECAS). (What do you think the “Neo Kid’s” siblings should be named? Tweet your suggestions to me: @MichaelSchoenDC. I might even send you a souvenir button!)
Prior to this inaugural flight, Virgin’s fleet consisted of approximately 63 A319s and A320s. The airline notes that the A321neo “has a similar configuration to – and will feature 95% airframe commonality with – other aircraft in the Airbus A320 Family, thereby ensuring a seamless fit into Virgin America’s existing fleet of A320s and A319s.”
The airline also points out that by “operating a single fleet type, Virgin America is able to avoid the costs and added operational complexity that comes with maintaining different fleet types.”
A Low-Key Send-Off For A Much-Anticipated Event
The flight departed from SFO at 8 a.m. local time, with little fanfare. A simple sign by the gate invited passengers to “Meet the Neo Kid On The Block.” It also noted that this would be the “Inaugural Airbus A321neo Flight.”
There was also a small model of the aircraft, along with a table of fruit, doughnuts, juice, and water. And as passengers entered the boarding gate, they were given a handsomely stitched “Virgin America A321neo” keychain.
Virgin America’s Corporate Communications Manager, Sean, had previously warned me that the airline was planning a “low-key sendoff.” The “Neo Kid” had been undergoing FAA-mandated testing in the weeks leading up the inaugural flight.
So, Sean explained there was a small chance that the flight would be pushed back a day or two. Fortunately, that didn’t happen!
Despite the low-key sendoff, there was a quite a bit of excitement surrounding this flight. In the weeks leading up to it, I’d talked to many Virgin America employees. Corporate staff and reservation agents alike seemed very excited; as did the aviation community in general.
During the flight, various members of the crew commented on the “significant number of passengers” who were aboard purely for the “first-flight experience”, and I had the pleasure of meeting many of them myself.
Because I’d had advance notice that the flight would be low-key, I knew there might not be much in the way of souvenirs. So I decided to design commemorative 3-inch diameter buttons for everyone on the plane, with extras for ground support staff. After all, in the words of Airways’ Chris Sloan, “What is an inaugural flight without the requisite swag of souvenirs?”
I began handing out buttons as soon as I arrived at the gate, and that led me to meet the flight’s Co-Captains, Brian and John.
I asked the Captains how they’d had the good fortune to be assigned this flight. Brian, the Senior Captain, explained that they were part of the “proving team”.
The “Neo Kid” is the very first A321neo that Airbus has delivered to a customer. The ceremony occurred in Hamburg, Germany, and Brian flew the aircraft back to the States. When I then asked John for his story, he playfully quipped that Brian had simply asked him to “ride along” on this flight.
Despite having a ticket for Seat 1F, I was the last person to board the aircraft.
However, immediately upon doing so, I was greeted by Virgin America’s Inflight Guest Experience Manager, Val, and the First-Class Cabin Flight Attendant, Jackie. I told them about my buttons, and they happily agreed to distribute them once we were aloft.
Meanwhile, I buckled in at my window seat, and prepared for my first inaugural flight!
Looking Into The Past While Riding The Future?
As we taxied to the runway, my nose was glued to the window. In a thought-provoking coincidence, I noticed that we were being followed by a single-aisle Boeing 757.
For many years, this aircraft has filled the “middle of the market” niche, also known as the “MOM”. But fuel-efficiency standards and technologies have come a long way since the B757 ended its 23-year production run in 2005.
For example, Virgin claims that the A321neo provides “the best seat-mile costs of any single-aisle aircraft on the market”, and Airbus is already planning to begin delivering an even longer-range version of the aircraft in 2019 – the A321 Long Range (LR).
The airframer describes the LR as having “the longest range of any single-aisle jetliner, able to fly routes of up to 4,000 nm. It is ideally suited to transatlantic routes, and enables airlines to tap into new long-haul markets that were not previously accessible with current single-aisle aircraft.”
On top of that, Airbus is also considering a further enhanced version: the A321neo “plus-plus.”
Several industry observers think the plus-plus could kill any plans by Boeing to design a clean-sheet aircraft for the MOM. And there are some who even think that the 50-year old B737 design could not be sufficiently modified to compete with a design that’s approximately half its age.
After literally putting the Boeing 757 behind us, and once the seatbelt sign went off, the Flight Attendant, Jackie, prepared to make an announcement over the P.A. system: “More souvenirs are on the way!” But first, she had a question for me. Should she say they were a gift from me? Well, this seemed like a great opportunity to give Airways some extra visibility.
So I asked Jackie to announce that the buttons were from the magazine.
The announcement having been duly made, Flight Attendant Alex gladly volunteered to hand out the buttons. They were so popular that he came back for seconds, and then thirds! (Glad I packed extras!)
Once aloft, I met most of the other members of the crew, including some Virgin technicians. They were aboard in case any of the aircraft’s new systems needed minor tweaks during the flight.
The technicians, Captains, and other Virgin America team members had been working together for several weeks at this point. As a whole, they constituted the proving team assigned to put the aircraft through its paces, and prepare it for passenger service.
As I mentioned earlier, the Neo is the newest and biggest addition to the Virgin America fleet. Until this flight, the airline had only operated A319s and A320s, so the A321neo is a big step up.
This was emphasized during a discussion I had with some crewmembers in the spacious rear galley. Flight Attendant, Anthony, described the aircraft as being “gigantic”. And the general consensus among the proving team was that they “still couldn’t believe how long it was!”
A quick aside: After the flight, I looked at a side-by-side comparison of two of my photos. The first was of the neo’s cabin, photographed from the rear galley. The second was taken from a similar vantage point, aboard a Virgin America A320 that I’d flown on the day before.
Unfortunately, the photos did not do justice to the neo’s size. However, after we landed in DCA, I took a photo of the aircraft at its gate. Then I took a second photo an hour later after the neo headed back to SFO. Taking its place at the gate was a Virgin America A319. As you can see, there is a tremendous difference in size!
It’s Not The Size That Matters
The A321neo is much longer than anything else in Virgin America’s fleet.
But it’s no longer than the legacy A321, which Airbus now refers to as the A321ceo (or “current engine option”). Airlines have been flying the A321ceo for years. So what truly makes the neo new and cutting edge is its “next-generation” engines.
They are significantly more fuel efficient than A321ceo engines.
Environmental Stewardship Is An Important Part Of The Airline Industry’s Business Model
Virgin estimates that the new engines, combined with Sharklets, will “deliver up to 20% reduced fuel burn over current generation aircraft. That’s equivalent to cutting 5,000 tons of CO2 emissions per plane every year.”
That’s also equivalent to saving hundreds of thousands of gallons of jet fuel each year!
Virgin makes another important point. The airline estimates that the Neo will have “half the noise footprint [of] the ceo.” And quiet airplanes are not only good for passengers, but also the communities that surround airports.
To paraphrase Attorney Nancy Young, Airlines for America’s VP of Environmental Affairs, environmental stewardship is an important part of the airline industry’s business model. On that note, Airbus points out that the neo’s 20% reduced fuel burn equates to a “per seat fuel improvement of 20%.” It also means the neo will be able to travel farther and/or heavier than the ceo: Up to either 500 nautical miles farther, or two tons heavier.
What Routes Can The A321neo Operate On?
You may want to take a moment to play with the interactive map at the bottom of this Airbus webpage.
The airframer states that “to determine the aircraft’s range from a specific location, simply drag the airplane icon to any city or region. The area covered in blue will represent all possible destinations within its typical [(nominal/optimized)] range.”
Virgin Is The Launch Customer For The LEAP-1A Engine, And The A321neo
Neo customers have two engine options: Pratt & Whitney’s PW1100G geared turbofan, or CFM International’s (non-geared) LEAP-1A.
Virgin America selected the former, and in hindsight, that was a fortunate choice. The P&W has been experiencing some technical difficulties.
For example, in mid-April, JetBlue decided to convert its upcoming A321 deliveries from “neo” to “ceo”. (P&W will most likely have the problem solved in short order, assuming it hasn’t already done so).
Virgin’s planes are typically divided into three fare classes: two-across First Class and “Main Cabin Select,” as well as three-across “Main Cabin.” According to Airbus, the A321neo can normally accommodate up to 236 passengers (or 240 with the “Cabin-Flex” option).
Happily, the “Neo Kid” is configured with only 185 seats. Yet Virgin notes that this is “roughly 24% more” capacity than their A320s.
This also includes six extra Main Cabin Select seats and an extra Main Cabin lavatory. That brings the total bathroom count to three in Main Cabin, with a fourth reserved for First Class. In total, there are eight First Class seats, 18 Main Cabin Select seats, and 159 Main Cabin seats.
You’re Probably Going To Be Comfortable Wherever You Sit
In my experience, Virgin America’s hard and soft product is uniformly good throughout the plane. On this trip, my third with Virgin America, I flew First Class, which was amazing in terms of comfort, service, technology, and culinary delights.
However, Main Cabin Select also looked very nice, as you can see below. And I’ve certainly had good experiences flying Main Cabin with Virgin America. Unsurprisingly, this opinion was reinforced by the Main Cabin passengers that I spoke to on this trip.
After all, every seat on Virgin America’s aircraft is nicely upholstered and has at least a reasonable amount of legroom. Each seat also features the airline’s “Red” in-flight entertainment, an on-demand menu, fee-based WiFi, and power outlets.
Plenty of Aviation Enthusiasts (#AvGeeks) Aboard!
As I promised, here is one of the many folks who booked passage on the “Neo Kid” just for the experience.
Arrival in Washington, DC
According to DCA air traffic controllers, the radio conversation between the “Neo Kid” (callsign “Redwood 1”) and National Airport’s tower went something like this:
-“Good afternoon Washington Tower. Redwood 1 is with you on the River Visual Approach for Runway one-nine.”
-“Good afternoon Redwood 1. You are cleared to land on Runway one-nine. Expect a wet welcome!”
No “Resting On Laurels” For The Virgin America Team!
The “Neo Kid” arrived at DC approximately 4 p.m. local time. A mere 80 minutes later, the Virgin America Team had the plane pushing back, for its return to SFO as “Flight #2″.
Westbound passengers waiting at the DCA gate had the privilege of watching their aircraft arrive to a water cannon salute. While doing so, some ate celebratory cake, featuring an image of the “Neo Kid”.
The Proving Team and DCA Station Team worked strenuously to get the plane ready for its flight home. Nonetheless, despite the tight deadline, Station Manager Rachel kindly granted ramp access to me, a few friends, and all four Captains.
Rachel’s Deputy, Jessica, escorted us: “You only have three-and-a-half minutes!” She warned, while closely watching the seconds hand on her wristwatch.
End Of The Tale?
As you likely know, Alaska Airlines recently acquired Virgin America. And at the moment, it sounds like the Virgin brand will likely be phased out of service.
However, Alaska may continue to fly Virgin America metal until the leases expire. In that case, it would be interesting to experience the “Neo Kid” wearing Alaska livery, and fitted out with the airline’s cabin configuration.
Cover Photo Courtesy of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)
About The Author
I’m a student of the aviation industry, and am pretty sure that this adventure earned me my “#AvGeek Badge!” I took this trip as a vacation and paid for it entirely out of pocket.
I received no compensation. My opinions are independent, and solely my own. This is my first article, so please let me know if you liked it, @MichaelSchoenDC.
Finally, you may have noticed that some of these photos are not my own. They were taken by friends on the ground, who kindly agreed to take time out of their day to help me. Thanks, gang!