Boeing vs. Airbus: The pilot weighs in

Is one more fun to fly? Is one model safer than the other? Plus: How they measure up in the looks department

Published July 18, 2011 11:20PM (EDT)

An Airbus A380 (top) and a Boeing 747
An Airbus A380 (top) and a Boeing 747

Over at recently, Brian Palmer, aka "the Explainer," wrote about some of the differences between planes designed by Boeing and those designed by Airbus, and what pilots think of these differences. Do pilots generally prefer one model over the other, as Palmer leads us to believe? And for what reasons? 

The worldwide fleet is split roughly 50/50 between Boeing models and Airbus models. (Boeing, as most people know, is a U.S. product, while Airbus is a European consortium headquartered in France.) It's true there are significant differences between the two, in their operating philosophies and basic systems architecture. But how, exactly, they are different, and what this means to the pilot, is something that would take many boring pages to answer -- and even then would be confusing to the layperson. Trust me, the typical reader doesn't need me to go there, and it's better to avoid trying to explain this nitty-gritty altogether rather than risk a cartoonish comparison similar to the one that Palmer provides. His explanations were pretty simplistic.

Contrary to what a lot of people think, there aren't two "camps" of pilot out there, with one that swears by the Boeing camp and another loyal to Airbus. Sure, a pilot might prefer one over the other, but it's probably just a case of whatever he or she is used to. And as I've discussed in the past, seniority determines virtually everything in a pilot's life, including which aircraft he or she gets to fly. Most pilots bid their preferences based on which assignments are the highest-paying, together with various quality-of-life issues -- what will give me the best schedule, the best commuting options and so on. Whether it's a Boeing or an Airbus is really secondary.

I'm often asked if pilots consider one model "better" or "safer" than the other. The long answer to this question would require nuanced comparisons between autoflight systems, fly-by-wire technology and the like -- once again, for most of you, a wholly boring conversation. The short and perfectly acceptable answer is no. Both planes have their own pleasant or annoying idiosyncrasies, and although there might be some merit to the argument that Airbus relies too heavily on automation -- under certain conditions, Airbus flight control software precludes manual inputs from the crew entirely -- we'll eventually wind up at a statistical stalemate. In conventional wisdom, Airbus is the more "controversial" player, but both plane-makers have endured scandals and controversies, from the air data sensor malfunction that may have played a role in the 2009 Air France disaster (Airbus), to the rudder design problems that caused at least two fatal 737 crashes (Boeing).

"If it's not a Boeing, I'm not going," reads a sticker you'll sometimes see on pilots' flight cases or on the bumpers of their cars. It's a cute rhyme, but don't read too much into this.

A Boeing is a Boeing; an Airbus is an Airbus ... but not. Even those aircraft within the same "family" can be vastly different from one another. Pilots transitioning from model to model, be it from an A320 to an A330, or from a 737 to a 747, will undergo a full training course, usually lasting several weeks. The only exceptions for this are the Airbus A330 and A340, and Boeing's 757 and 767, which allow for simultaneous dual qualification. Yours truly is a 757/767 first officer. I might fly a 757 from New York to Los Angeles, then a 767 on the return.

A common question is whether planes "feel" or "handle" differently from one another. They do. Seldom will you find two aircraft types with identical flying characteristics. A 757 "feels" quite different from a 767, for instance, even as the two are otherwise so similar that they share a common certification. The former is heavy and somewhat sluggish on the controls; the latter, even at double the size, is much lighter and more sensitive.

But how important is this? The hands-on controlling of an aircraft is only a small part of what goes into "flying" -- along with navigating, systems managing, communicating, etc. Thus you don't compare airplanes the way you compare cars.

And be wary of the language pilots often use when comparing planes. When, in earlier columns and in my book, I accused the ATR turboprop of being "fragile," or if I called the DC-8 freighter a "relic," this was a pilot being colloquial. The ATR is not a Yugo, and neither, even by the most lenient extrapolation, is any commercial aircraft.

Do I have a favorite of the types that I've flown? Well, I suppose the 767 is the most impressive plane on my résumé -- it's the biggest and longest-ranging. But I also have marked fondness for the old De Havilland Dash-8, a twin-engine turboprop that I flew briefly in 1993. This was the first "real" airplane I every qualified on. For a regional pilot who'd been flying 19-seaters, "real" meant a plane with a big, airliner-style cockpit and, most impressive of all, a cabin attendant.

Handling and performance are only part of the criteria. You'd be surprised how often simple ergonomics and comfort are cited for the reasons that a pilot likes or dislikes a particular model. For example, one of my big reasons for disliking the ATR was because the air-conditioning system was so weak. What I remember most about the MD-80 is that you could smell the first-class lavatory from the cockpit. The DC-8 had a cockpit with all the comfort and sophistication of a World War II Soviet submarine, and the Jetstream 41's Garrett engines left your ears ringing for days.

My memory is balky when it comes to how fast these planes went, how high they flew, or how powerful their engines were. But I remember how they smelled, how they sounded, and how the rest of their intangibles otherwise excited me -- or failed to.

For additional reminiscence of airplanes past, see here

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Airbus models currently in production:

A320 This short- to medium-haul, twin-engine narrowbody is one of the world's best-selling jetliners. More than 4,000 have been rolled out, including the A318, A319 and A321 subvariants. (Patrick Smith's aesthetic judgment: D+. Generic and inelegant. If Walmart sold planes, this is what they would look like. The A319 in particular looks like something that popped from an Airbus vending machine.)

A330 A popular long-haul, twin-engine widebody with seating for 250-300 passengers, depending on configuration. Approximately 700 in service. (Patrick Smith's aesthetic ruling: B-) 

A340 This four-engined, long-haul widebody is easily the prettiest of the Airbus fleet. About 400 have been sold, mostly to Asian and European airlines (no U.S. carrier has ever operated an A340). (Patrick Smith's aesthetic ruling: A-, though the -500 and -600 variants, with the bulkier engines, aren't as pretty as the -200 or -300.)

A380 This ungainly behemoth -- the biggest and ugliest jetliner ever constructed -- has been flying for a few years now in the colors of Emirates, Singapore Airlines, Qantas, Lufthansa and Air France. The order book stands at around 200. (Patrick Smith's aesthetic ruling: F. This, from the people who gave us Concorde?)

Earlier Airbus models, a few of which are still around, are the A300 and A310. The A350, a derivative of the A330, is slated for commercial delivery in 2013. 

Boeing models currently in production:

737 Boeing's bread-and-butter product; more 737s have been sold -- over 5,000 -- than any other jet in history. (Patrick Smith's aesthetic ruling: This is tough because there have been so many versions of the 737, of varying sizes and appearances. In all cases it's a bland, utilitarian-looking plane, but not as graceless as its main competitor, the A320. How about a C+?) 

747 Arguably the most iconic and influential jetliner in history, the four-engine 747 is also one of the best-selling. Among Boeings, only the 737 has sold more copies. The newest variant, the 747-8, will start commercial service later this year. (Patrick Smith's aesthetic ruling: A. The -8, with its tapered wingtips and scalloped nacelles, is the prettiest 747 yet. To make a nautical comparison, think back to the days of the classic ocean liners. This is the QE2 of the skies -- grand, elegant, refined. The A380 is one of those bulky new cruise ships that looks like a floating wedding cake -- oversize, ungainly and vulgar.) 

767 About a thousand examples of this medium/long-haul quasi-widebody have been sold over a 30-year run. While its smaller brother, the 757, has been out of production for some time, a few tanker and cargo versions of the "seven-six" continue trickling off the assembly line. (Patrick Smith's aesthetic ruling: C) 

777 The largest of the widebody twins, the 777 typically seats up to 300 people in a two- or three-class configuration. The 777-200LR has the longest range of any commercial jet, and can remain aloft for over 17 hours. About 900 777s have been delivered. (Patrick Smith's aesthetic ruling: B) 

787 Currently in its pre-delivery testing phase, the 787 is Boeing's most technologically ambitious aircraft since the 707. Capacity-wise it fits in somewhere between the 767 and 777. With 900-plus orders already in the books, it is the fastest-selling jetliner ever. (Patrick Smith's aesthetic ruling: A-)

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By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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