The Boeing 737 vs Airbus A320 – Which Plane Is Best?

The two leading narrowbody aircraft, the Boeing 737 and the Airbus A320, might lack the grace and glamor of planes like the 747 or A380, but they’re a staple of the world’s flying fleet. For most of us, a trip on an A320 or 737 happens far more often than a widebody flight, so love them or hate them, these are our bread and butter planes. But how do they compare to each other?

A320 vs 737
It’s a face-off between the two best-selling narrowbodies. Which is better? Photo: Getty Images

What’s in a plane?

The two aircraft under consideration here are, at first glance, very similar. The Airbus has a slightly more rounded nose, and if you like to humanize your aircraft, we think it’s a bit more friendly-looking. The Boeing’s sharp, pointed nose and angry expression make it appear a little more aggressive, but that’s just our personal opinion.

Spotting the difference between the two aircraft is not the easiest of tasks. There are many variants of each and subtle differences between each one, not to mention lots of add-ons and details that can make it difficult to discern one from the other.

Air Astana, Domestic Demand, COVID-19
The Airbus has a more rounded nose. Photo: Getty Images

Aside from the nose, the biggest difference, from the outside, at least, is in the cockpit windows. The Boeing’s windows slant downwards as they wrap around the nose, while the Airbus has straighter, more rounded windows.

AA 737 MAX
The 737’s side windows slant down. Photo: American Airlines

The engines are a bit of a giveaway too, as the later models of Boeing 737 have had to flatten the engines at the bottom to give a bit more ground clearance. The Airbus sits higher, so has perfectly circular engines.

Airlines using jetfuel
The flat bottom on the engines of later 737s is a giveaway. Photo: Getty Images

At the tips of the wings, Boeing and Airbus employ different winglet types to aid efficient flying. Boeing uses angular winglet technology, sometimes with two winglets, one pointing up and one down, known as ‘split scimitar’.

Boeing 737 MAX, United Airlines, Grounded
The 737 MAX has split scimitar wingtips, and some older models use them too. Photo: United Airlines

Airbus uses ‘sharklets’, so called because they have the appearance of a sharks fin. However, some airlines use other types of technology, such as wingtip fences or endplates. It’s not always simple to see the difference in the plane by the wing furniture alone.

Eurowings, Airbus A320, Heraklion
The Airbus A320 often has sharklets. Photo: Eurowings

That’s the outside of the plane… what about what’s on the inside?

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Inside the narrowbodies

At face value, there’s not much to choose. Both are standard short-haul planes, with cabin arranged in a 3-3 configuration and sometimes with a short-haul business class product up front. There’s space for bags, a single-aisle and usually, lavatories both front and back.

However, there are some fundamental differences when it comes to passenger comfort. The Airbus A320 has a wider cabin than the Boeing 737. It’s only seven inches but can make all the difference to the ride comfort. For passengers, this often means a slightly wider seat, which is always welcome, even on short-haul.

Aegean A320neo business class
The A320 cabin is slightly wider, which is a win for passenger comfort. Photo: PriestmanGoode

Because the cabin is wider, the curvature is less aggressive on the Airbus. It’s only a slight difference, but when you’re trying to rest your head at your window seat, there’s far more room for maneuver onboard the A320.

Sun country interior
The curvature of the 737 cabin is noticeable for tall people in window seats. Photo: Sun Country Airlines

You might notice a difference with the windows too. The 737 has very slightly larger windows than the A320, which should really be a positive. However, they are placed much lower, meaning taller people will find themselves bending over to see out of the window. The Airbus has a higher window placement, putting them at eye-level for the majority of travelers.

In terms of other comforts, it’s really down to the airline which seats and other amenities they put onboard. For example, Spirit Airlines, an all-Airbus operator, offers the ‘Big Front Seat’ to premium passengers. United Airlines has a similar product on its 737s too.

Spirit Big Front Seat
The specifics of the onboard product will vary between airlines. Photo: Spirit Airlines

The pilot’s point of view

Pilots seem to have mixed feelings about the two aircraft. The Boeing 737 is more familiar to old school pilots, in that it still uses a floor-mounted yoke connected to control cables, which directly manipulate hydraulically boosted control surfaces. It’s a much more tactile experience and much more like traditional ‘flying’.

The A320, on the other hand, uses ‘fly-by-wire’ technology, relying on sensors and electronics to control the aircraft. Electrical signals sense the pilot’s input and delivers the message to the aircraft controls. That, for a traditional pilot, can seem a little scary, although it’s well-proven with an excellent safety record.

Airbus A320 Cockpit
The Airbus uses fly-by-wire technology. Photo: Airbus

Peter Bedell, an airline pilot and type rated on both aircraft, has outlined his thoughts on the two models in an AOPA article. Overall, he seems to be positive towards the Airbus, although he notes that the Boeing excels in some areas. At the end of the day, this comes down to personal preference.

Comparing the numbers

Although both Boeing and Airbus have brought newer, more efficient generations of narrowbodies to the market, namely the neo for Airbus and the MAX for Boeing, the previous generation is far more prolific at airlines right now. If you’re flying narrowbody, you’re most likely to encounter a 737-800 (NG) or an Airbus A320-200, for now.

Let’s compare the specs of these two popular planes to see how they stack up.

 Boeing 737-800Airbus A320-200
Length39.5 m / 129 ft 7 in37.57 m / 123 ft 3 in
Wingspan35.8 m / 117 ft 5 in34.1 m / 111 ft 10 in
MTOW79,000 kg / 174,000 lb77,000 kg / 170,000 lb
Range5,425 km / 2,930 nm5,700 km / 3,078 nm
Cruise speedM 0.785M 0.78
Capacity (typical)162 pax150 pax
Max capacity198 pax190 pax

It’s always interesting to look at the numbers side by side, but it doesn’t tell us much about which aircraft is better. Both are fairly evenly matched on passenger capacity, range and other metrics. But what about the sales?

For many years, the A320 and 737 were neck and neck in terms of orders and deliveries. Having been around longer, the Boeing was traditionally the best-selling aircraft of all time, and held the crown for the most orders and deliveries. However, events of last year have shaken things up and changed the playing field.

Boeing 737 MAX Getty
The prolonged grounding of the MAX has allowed Airbus to pull ahead in the orders stakes. Photo: Getty Images

The tragic accidents involving two 737 MAX led to a prolonged grounding of the type. As the months dragged on, the cancelations started to roll in. In November last year, the Boeing 737 lost its battle with Airbus and was surpassed in order numbers despite being on sale for 20 years longer. Back then, Boeing had recorded 15,136 orders for 737 models, including all generations of the plane. Airbus had notched 15,193 orders for the A320 family.

Airbus recently celebrated the delivery of the 10,000th A320 family aircraft. Well, the aircraft with MSN 10,000 anyway. Boeing delivered its 10,000th 737 to Southwest in 2018. However, 2020 is proving to be a pivotal year for Boeing, as the continued grounding has meant only a handful of 737 NGs have been delivered, and no 737 MAX.

The Boeing 737 vs Airbus A320 – Which Plane Is Best?
Airbus has recently reached a milestone in A320 family deliveries. Photo: Airbus

With a backlog of built but not delivered 737 MAX approaching 600 aircraft, Boeing has a tough time ahead getting them all out of the door. However, it could help it pull back alongside the competition, as long as the aircraft is cleared to fly soon.

Which is best?

We find the challenge of which plane is best a very tricky one to answer. The matter is somewhat subjective, and opinions can get somewhat heated when it comes to picking a favorite. As such, we want to turn it over to you.

Which is your favorite narrowbody? The 737 or the A320? You decide!