EXCLUSIVE: Onboard the Inaugural Airbus A320neo Low-Key Lufthansa Launch

Story, Photos and Videos by: Andreas Spaeth / Published: January 25, 2016

The Airbus A320neo has officially entered commercial airline service today. The extremely low-key non-event caught almost all passengers of Lufthansa flight 100 by surprise this morning when they flew from Lufthansa’s main base Frankfurt to its second German hub in Munich.

The aircraft, registered D-AINA (MSN 6801) was handed over and delivered, also on short notice, last week from the Airbus factory in Hamburg-Finkenwerder after problems were discovered on the acceptance flight, that had to be rectified by Airbus. Originally the delivery to Lufthansa had been planned for December 22, then pushed to the week between Christmas and New Years. When that didn’t happen, Airbus CEO Fabrice Brégier  said  at the Annual Airbus Press Conference on January 12th that the delivery would happen “within 2 weeks”.  After delivery took place last week, the first flight was set for Sunday January 24 from Frankfurt to Hamburg, but postponed on short notice due to “valve problems” in one engine, according to a Lufthansa spokeswoman.

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Everything about the aircraft that is supposedly the new bread-and-butter plane of Airbus and many airlines in the decades to come is low key, even on the outside it’s just ordinarily announced as “Airbus A320-200” with no mention of the neo branding. At least this is a fact with the launch customer, which Lufthansa became somehow accidentally, after Qatar Airways refused the role it was initially supposed to play. This was due to minor early operational shortcomings of the new Pratt & Whitney PW1100G Geared Turbo Fan engines, which affected turn-around times when the engine was started cold.

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Lufthansa stepped in as launch customer despite these foibles as it has its own maintenance division Lufthansa Technik close by in Hamburg, able to support and mature the engine while the aircraft is already in line service. Original launch customer Qatar couldn’t and wasn’t willing to do the same, Lufthansa officials privately acknowledge. These much bigger engines, supposed to save at least 15% of fuel consumption and being much more silent, are at the core of the of the A320neo’s mission. Standing besides the PW1100G engines, measuring 81 inches (2.06 meters) in fan diameter versus just 56.7 inches (1.44 meters) with an A320ceo (current engine option), the difference becomes obvious.

Almost 6,900 A320s have been built since production started in 1986, and Airbus’ order books are bursting with further nearly 4,500 orders of around 80 customers for the A320neo family. So the commercial premiere of the A320neo is quite significant for the airline, the manufacturer and the traveling public. Nothing of this was showing today at Frankfurt airport. There was no ceremony, no signage or speeches acknowledging the event. The only reference to this world premiere was the Captain’s announcement over the PA. An official delivery and handover ceremony is planned for the second aircraft, taking place on February 12 at Airbus Hamburg-Finkenwerder factory.

Entering Lufthansa’s A320neo is  déjà vu at first, as initially nothing out of the ordinary meets the eye and the cabin is equipped with the same Recaro slim line seats as the rest of the Airbus narrowbody fleet. Fact is that the A320neo in Lufthansa’s new configuration carries 180 passengers, twelve additional seats in two seat rows more than the current A320s of the carrier, which physically have the same fuselage dimensions. Swiss meanwhile, already flies the A320 with 186 seats even. It’s clear that these legacy carriers want to copy the high density of the LCC’s while still maintaining some attributes of full-service carriers. Lufthansa for example still serves free soft drinks and a small snack to Economy passengers even of the lowest fare classes. And seat-wise, the full service German carrier still offers a slight recline and leather seats.

But never has the distinction between premium seats in Business Class and others in Economy been as clear as in the new Lufthansa A320neo cabin. Lufthansa claims it has gained space by rearranging toilets and galleys, but it has also squeezed seat pitch considerably aft of about the first third of the cabin. This author did his own measurements today: On a current Lufthansa A320, there are 11.8 inches (30cm) of space between the back of the seat in front and the edge of the next seat. The space to sit on, measured from the edge to the beginning of the backrest, is 16.92 inches (43 cm). Compare this to Economy seats in the new A320neo: Here the foot- and leg space measures just 11.22 inches (28.5 cm), the seat itself offers only 16.1 inches (41 cm). The recline especially of the window seats on the premiere aircraft was not well-oiled yet and a bit hard to apply, other seats were easier to recline, although the actual recline is minimal. Official seat pitch in Lufthansa’s Economy cabin on the A320neo is 29.1 inches (74 cm).

But in all fairness it has to be said that for the author, measuring 5 feet, 10 inches (1.88m in length) and often flying equally LCCs and otherwise long haul Business Class, the space was adequate for a short flight like from Frankfurt to Munich, taking 35 minutes in the air. Subjectively, it felt more comfortable than seating on easyJet. Big difference in Business Class: In the first about six rows, with a guaranteed free middle seat, the leg space measures a lofty 14.17 inches (36 cm), while the seat itself from edge to back offers 16.53 cm (42 cm) of space, so even in Business Class one centimeter less than before. Officially the seat pitch in Business is 31.8 inches (81 cm).

In the back of the aircraft, the last row has no windows, while there is now only one lavatory, which has been squeezed in front of the rear bulkhead wall, taking half of the fuselage diameter, with the other half taken by a now much smaller galley. On take-off, the A320neo is audibly quieter than earlier models. In flight however, seated in seat 23A behind the wings, it was fairly noisy and vibrations could be felt.

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The captain of the flight commented later: “We didn’t want to incur a delay right on the first flight, so we flew faster than normal, that’s what caused the extra noise.” Lufthansa group has 116 neo-type aircraft on order, 45 of them are for the larger A321neos. 60 of all A320neo family aircraft for Lufthansa will be equipped with the PW1100G engines. The first aircraft will mostly fly from the main base Frankfurt to both Munich and Hamburg.

This is a big week for the narrow body middle of the market segment. Boeing’s 737 MAX is scheduled for its first flight on Friday January 29th. We will be running an A320neo vs 737 Max 2 part analysis beginning later this week.


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Contact the editor at roberto.leiro@airwaysnews.com

 

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