Aircraft manufacturers are in the midst of a massive wave of new model rollouts. For the most part, these next-generation airplanes are touted for offering big fuel efficiency gains over their predecessors.

However, in some cases, the improved performance of new airplane models is opening up huge, new business opportunities. That's the case for Hawaiian Holdings (NASDAQ:HA), thanks to the improved range of Airbus' (OTC:EADSY) A321neo. The even greater range of the Airbus A321LR could have a similar transformative impact at JetBlue Airways (NASDAQ:JBLU).

Hawaiian Airlines bets on the A321neo

For decades, Hawaiian Airlines has relied on wide-body aircraft for all of its routes to the U.S. mainland, and more recently, its international flights. Several other airlines use narrow-body planes like the current-generation A321 for West Coast-Hawaii flights. However, those planes can't always make the trip to Hawaii when fully loaded.

Today, Hawaiian Airlines uses wide-body aircraft for all of its mainland flights. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

The A321neo's superior fuel efficiency gives it hundreds of miles of additional range, allowing it to comfortably reach Hawaii from any West Coast city. That's why Hawaiian Airlines ordered 16 A321neos from Airbus in 2013.

Hawaiian Airlines believes that the A321neo will provide the lowest unit costs of any airplane for West Coast-Hawaii flights. As the A321neo replaces less efficient widebodies on West Coast routes, the company will become an even more formidable competitor there.

Due to its smaller size (relative to a widebody), the A321neo will also make a large number of new routes feasible for Hawaiian Airlines. It will be able to offer much more nonstop service to Maui and the other outlying islands rather than focusing primarily on flights to Honolulu. Hawaiian Airlines could also start adding smaller cities to its West Coast route network.

JetBlue thinks transatlantic

On the other side of the country, JetBlue Airways is considering using a new Airbus plane to fly to Europe. In July, JetBlue ordered another 30 A321s and A321neos, primarily to expand its Mint premium transcontinental service. But it also confirmed for the first time that it's studying the A321LR, a longer-range version of the A321neo that Airbus will start delivering in 2019.

The A321LR would allow JetBlue to fly to Europe from its Boston and New York focus cities. The eastern and southern parts of the continent would remain out of reach, whereas widebodies can handle any transatlantic route. But with the A321LR, JetBlue could serve many of Europe's biggest cities while maintaining commonality with its existing fleet of A320s and A321s.

The A321LR will integrate seamlessly with JetBlue's large A320 fleet. Image source: JetBlue Airways.

By easing JetBlue's expansion into Europe, the A321LR could also help JetBlue solidify its dominance in Boston, where it's the largest airline. The company has already announced plans to grow in Boston to 200 peak-day departures (up from about 140 today).

As part of this strategy, JetBlue is restarting flights to Atlanta, filling one of the last major holes in its domestic route network. However, if it wants to continue gaining share among business travelers, JetBlue probably needs to serve the top international business destinations, such as London, Paris, and Frankfurt.

If Airbus had never decided to build the A321LR, JetBlue may have eventually moved into Europe using wide-body aircraft. But the availability of the A321LR greatly increases the chances that JetBlue will take this leap -- becoming an even more potent threat to the legacy carriers in the process.

Change is in the air

By turning the A321 into the longer-range (and more fuel-efficient) A321neo and A321LR, Airbus is helping its customers bring the superior cost performance of narrow-body aircraft to routes that have mainly been served by wide-bodies up until now. This is opening up new business opportunities for carriers like Hawaiian Airlines and JetBlue.

That's good for the flying public, as these smaller airlines will be better able to challenge the legacy carriers going forward. It's also great news for investors in Hawaiian Airlines and JetBlue. New aircraft technology will drive the next phase of both airlines' growth, while bolstering their already strong profit margins.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.